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AICR Food Facts

Red Meat (Beef, Pork, Lamb): Increases Risk of Colorectal Cancer

This content was last updated on January 22, 2020

The Cancer Research

There is strong evidence that eating high amounts of red meat increases the risk of colorectal cancer.


There is strong evidence that consuming Red Meat (Beef, Pork, Lamb): Increases Risk of Colorectal Cancer INCREASES the risk of:

  • Colorectal Cancer

Interpreting the data

Evidence is strongest linking high consumption of red meat with greater risk of colorectal cancer. Several mechanisms could account for this increased risk, and more research is needed to better understand the role of each in cancer development:

  • Red meat is higher than poultry or seafood in heme iron. This particular form of iron can lead to the production of free radicals that damage DNA and promote the formation of nitroso compounds, which can create damage within the gut that leads to cancer.
  • Cooking meat at high temperatures, and smoking or grilling meat, can produce other cancer-causing compounds called heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). These compounds are not unique to red meat, however, so alone they do not explain the difference in risk from red meat compared to poultry and seafood.
  • Emerging evidence suggests that red meat may also increase cancer risk by promoting chronic, low-grade inflammation. Eating habits that include high amounts of red meat seem to affect the bacteria that live in the gut (the gut microbiome), increasing microbes that can promote inflammation.
  • Research is underway to investigate whether other choices that make up overall eating habits, such as fiber-rich foods and vegetables with protective phytochemicals, might lessen the risk of red meat consumption. Although theoretically possible, the evidence is lacking for now.

AICR/WCRF also found limited evidence suggesting a possible association with red meat and greater risk of cancers of the nasopharynx, lung and pancreas. The AICR/WCRF expert panel evaluated the evidence and found it too limited to support a dietary recommendation, however.

*After a systematic review of the global scientific literature, AICR/WCRF analyzed how red meat affects the risk of developing cancer.

  • Evidence categorized as “convincing” and “probable” means there is strong research showing a causal relationship to cancer—either decreasing or increasing the risk. The research must include quality human studies that meet specific criteria and biological explanations for the findings.
  • A convincing and probable judgment is strong enough to justify recommendations.
  • Evidence categorized as “limited suggestive” means results are generally consistent in overall conclusions, but it’s rarely strong enough to justify recommendations to reduce the risk of cancer.


Source: AICR/WCRF. Diet, Nutrition, Physical Activity and Cancer: A Global Perspective, 2018


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