by Marion Nestle
Feb 25 2011

UK health agency: limit red and processed meats to 3 ounces a day

The UK Department of Health issued a warning today to eat less red and processed meat.

  • Red meat means beef, lamb and pork as well as minced meat and offal from these animals.
  • Processed meat means ham, bacon, luncheon meat, corned beef, salami, pâté, sausages and burgers.

The warning is based on a new report from the independent Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN).  Its report evaluated the effects of iron on health. Because red meat is a primary source of dietary iron, the committee looked at evidence on the links between red meat and processed meats and bowel cancer.

The report concludes that the link “probably” exists and that:

Adults with relatively high intakes of red and processed meat (around 90 g/day or more) should consider reducing their intakes. A reduction to the UK population average for adult consumers (70 g/day cooked weight) would have little impact on the proportion of the adult population with low iron intakes.

How much is 90 grams?  It is only three ounces of cooked meat.

The UK Health Department advises:

  • People who eat a lot of red or processed meat – around 90g or more of cooked weight per day – are at greater risk of getting bowel cancer;
  • Cutting down to the UK average of 70g a day can help reduce the risk; and
  • This can be achieved by eating smaller portions or by eating red and processed meat less often.

The Department points out that cooked meat weighs about 70% of its uncooked weight (it has less water). So 3 ounces of cooked meat is equivalent to about 4 ounces of uncooked meat.

Expect to hear lots of reactions like “red meat can still be enjoyed in moderation as part of a healthy balanced diet.”

And where are the US Dietary Guidelines on the subject of red and processed meats?  Buried in euphemisms, alas:

  • Choose lean meats
  • Choose seafood instead of some meat
  • Reduce calories from solid fats

No wonder Americans are confused about diet and health.

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  • Doesn’t news like this sometimes make you fall into a state of despair?

    One of America’s leading scientists spent much of his career researching what causes heart disease and preventable premature deaths. His final words of policy advice were to avoid red meat dripping in saturated fat as much as possible, among other words of evidence based wisdom.

    Everyone largely ignored him and he retired a well respected scientists amongst the science community, but branded a heretic by the meat industry who then set about convincing Senators that meat was in the best interests of corporate America and nothing else mattered.

    50 years on, it takes others to start leading the way on meat advisory. Even during the press release of the 2010 Dietary Guidelines on January 31, the USDA could not utter the words ‘eat less meat’ but tried to use every innuendo to show they agreed with the position but were not allowed to make the recommendation.

    Why on earth should a government, sorry the most powerful government on earth, have to pussy-foot around such an important health issue?

    The 2010 Dietary Guidelines should be renamed the Ancel Keys Dietary Guidelines out of respect for the good work that went ignored and cost so much in terms of disability free lives and extra funding to fight many an obesity, diabetes, heart disease and cancer battle that should never have been allowed to exists in such wanton disregard for public health.

    Red meat has many benefits for health. The body needs proteins and essential amino acids that the body can’t make or would rather save the effort of having to make. You don’t have to advise the population to start eating tofu and go out hugging trees at the weekends. Just advise them to meat in moderation, once or twice a week, to improve their health and save billions each year in healthcare costs.

  • As we learn more about each type of food and macronutrient we study, we learn what questions to ask about it. Research on fats used to cover all fats – then it was broken down to saturated/monounsaturated/polyunsaturated, then whether or not it’s hydrogenated, now the omega-3/omega-6 fatty acid balance… So instead of saying “fat is bad,” the most recent statement is “having too high omega-6/omega-3 balance is bad.”

    I wonder if the research by the SACN included any breakdown of what types of red meat were eaten. Processed or unprocessed? With injected saline or not? Organic or not? Grass-fed or not? It may be that processed or non-organic red meat increases the risk of bowel cancer but organic, grass-fed red meat does not. Or the other way round, who knows.

    Primates (including humans) have been eating meat for millennia, but have survived and thrived. Chimpanzees eat meat as around 15% of their diet. Humans in colder climates eat more than those in warmer climates, and some cultures such as the Inuit traditionally eat nearly 100% of their diet as meat. It would be surprising to find that all types of red meat are potentially dangerous.

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  • Anthro

    An important point here is serving size. These constant arguments that we, as primates, are “made to eat meat” are grossly overstated. We evolved to eat some meat–mostly scavenged. When we “hunted” for thousands of years, we weren’t very successful at it and didn’t end up eating all that much meat. It was important to our brain development, but that means a little bit of extra protein, certainly not the image of early humans sitting around a roaring fire gorging on meat every night.

    When I first started to reduce my portion sizes, I wept at the sight of only four oz. of salmon. But I have adjusted–and just think how much further the food budget goes if you actually eat the recommended servings! A pound of grass fed bison now makes FOUR burgers for us–and is an occasional treat, not a daily ritual.

    The rest of the time, we eat a variety of delectable vegetarian stuff–soups, salads, ethnic cuisine, all in measured portions. Guess what? We’re not fat anymore and we take much less medication for the heart disease that runs in both our families.

    It is tragic that our government cannot confront the food and ag industries head on, but you, as an individual, can read between the lines and act responsibly on your own behalf. Sadly, this will not help huge segments of the population that only see the food promoted on tv and on every corner of their neighborhoods.

    One thing you can do is make sure you don’t own any stock in junk food–if we can remove the profit motive from this area of the market, the corporations will respond. So, eat a bit less and put the savings into supporting companies that produce REAL food.

  • Anthro


    Hooray for the UK for taking this stand for public health!

  • Jon

    Technically, it’s 3.17 ounces, but still…

    The easiest thing to do is avoid junk food. I mean, you can’t even take on soda companies in the US without the chorus of politicians saying there’s nothing wrong with as much soda as you desire.

  • KateR

    In what world is “red meat” considered the equivalent of “processed meats”, and then the two are lumped together to come up with a diet recommendation?? Also, it’s time to reconsider our knee-jerk reactions to the words “saturated fat”.

  • Anthro


    The two categories were not “lumped together”, but rather combined as two groups that comprise a category to be avoided as regularly eaten foods.

    As to saturated fat, I suggest you click on some of the topic headings at the right of this blog for Marion’s expert notes on this subject.

  • So what is the component in red meat and processed meat that is the problem? Is it the nitrosamines that are formed during cooking or added as preservatives?

  • KateR

    No worries, I certainly have looked at all the links on MN’s blog. I enjoy reading all I can on the issue of the so-called “western diseases” and diet recommendations, which are in the process of being radically modified as we sit here and educate ourselves. It’s fascinating to watch the scientific process at work, refining and correcting and making new discoveries. I won’t try to convert anyone here, but have become convinced that red meat and saturated fats are not worth worrying about. I very much appreciate Marion Nestle’s measured approach to the dietary issues.