Commonly, especially in gastronomy, red meat is red when raw and dark in color when cooked, in contrast to white meat, which is pale in color before and after cooking.[1][2] In cooking, only flesh from mammals or fowl is classified as red or white.[3][4]

In nutritional science, on the other hand, red meat is defined as any meat that has more myoglobin than white meat, white meat being defined as non-dark meat from chicken (excluding leg or thigh), or fish.

Some meat, such as pork, is red meat under the nutritional definition, and white meat using the common or gastronomic definition.


Concentration of myoglobin by percentage of mass
Name Myoglobin USDA Category
Chicken Breast 0.005%[5] White Meat [6]
Chicken Thigh 0.18 - 0.20%[5] Dark Meat
Turkey Thigh 0.25 - 0.30%[5] Dark Meat
Pork 0.10 - 0.30%[5] Red Meat[6]
Veal 0.10 - 0.30%[5] Red Meat[6]
Beef 0.40 - 1.00%[5] Red Meat[6]
Old beef 1.50 - 2.00%[5] Red Meat[6]

According to the USDA, all meats obtained from mammals (regardless of cut or age) are red meats because they contain more myoglobin than fish or white meat (but not necessarily dark meat)[5] from chicken.[6]

Duck, with potatoes, showing the red color of the meat

Under the culinary definition, the meat from adult or 'gamey' mammals (for example, beef, horse meat, mutton, venison, boar, hare) is red meat, while that from young mammals (rabbit, veal, lamb) is white. Most poultry is white, but duck and goose are red. Most cuts of pork are red, others are white.[7] Game is sometimes put in a separate category altogether. (French: viandes noires — "dark meats".)[4] Some meats (lamb, pork) are classified differently by different writers.

Some cuts of pork are considered white under the culinary definition, but all pork is red in nutritional studies. The National Pork Board has positioned it as "Pork. The Other White Meat", profiting from the ambiguity to suggest that pork has the nutritional properties of white meat, which is considered more healthful.[8][9]


Red meat contains large amounts of iron, creatine, minerals such as zinc and phosphorus, and B-vitamins: (niacin, vitamin B12, thiamin and riboflavin).[10] Red meat is a source of lipoic acid.

Red meat contains small amounts of vitamin D.[11] The liver contains much higher quantities than other parts of the animal.

In 2011, the USDA launched MyPlate, which didn't distinguish between kinds of meat, but did recommend eating at least 8 oz (227 grams) of fish each week.[12][13] In 2011, the Harvard School of Public Health launched the Healthy Eating Plate in part because of the perceived inadequacies of the USDA's recommendations.[12] The Healthy Eating Plate encourages consumers to avoid processed meat and limit red meat consumption to twice a week because of links to heart disease, diabetes, and colon cancer. To replace these meats it recommends consuming fish, poultry, beans or nuts.[12]

Human health

Red meat is not a uniform product; its health effects can vary based on fat content, processing and preparation. Processed red meat is linked to higher mortality, mainly due to cardiovascular diseases and cancer.[14] There is some evidence that the consumption of unprocessed red meat may have negative health effects in humans.[15]


Red meat

A 2016 literature review reported that for 100g or more per day of red meat consumed, the risk increased 11% for each of stroke and for breast cancer, 15% for cardiovascular mortality, 17% for colorectal cancer, and 19% for advanced prostate cancer.[16]

In 2015 the International Agency for Research on Cancer concluded that red meat is probably (Group 2A) carcinogenic to humans,[17] reported that for each additional 100g (up to a maximum of approximately 140g)[18] of red meat consumed per day, the risk of colorectal cancer increased by 17%; there also appeared to be increased risk of pancreatic cancer and prostate cancer but the association was not as clear.[19] Put in perspective, in the UK, 56 out of 1000 people who eat the lowest amount of red meat will develop colorectal cancer (5.6%) while 66 out of 1000 high-red meat eaters will develop colorectal cancer (6.6%) (1.17 x 5.6 = 6.6).[20]

A 2012 meta-analysis found an increased risk of gastric cancer with higher consumption of red or processed meat.[21] Red meat itself contains certain factors that, under certain conditions, produce carcinogens like N-nitroso compounds (NOCs).[22]

The consensus on the role of red meat consumption to increased risk of cardiovascular diseases has changed in recent years. Studies that differentiate between processed and fresh red meat have failed to find a link between unprocessed red meat consumption and heart disease. A major Harvard University meta-study in 2010 involving over one million people who ate meat found that only processed meat had an adverse risk in relation to coronary heart disease (CHD).[23][24] The study suggests that the "differences in salt and preservatives, rather than fats, might explain the higher risk of heart disease and diabetes seen with processed meats, but not with unprocessed red meats." Some mechanisms that have been suggested for why red meat consumption might be risk factor for cardiovascular disease include: its impact on serum cholesterol,[25] that red meat contains arachidonic acid,[26] heme iron,[27] homocysteine,[28] and its high saturated fat content.

Several studies have found a correlation between unprocessed red meat and the occurrence of CHD and certain types of stroke and have controlled for various confounding risk factors.[29] A study of 84,000 women, over a period of 26 years, finds that those with the highest intake of unprocessed red meat, have a 13% increased risk of CHD.[29] Likewise a Harvard study published in 2012, studying mortality as a result of processed and unprocessed red meat consumption finds that one serving of either type of meat a day results in an increased risk of mortality of 13%,[30] while this ratio is indicative of cancer and cardiovascular (CVD) disease, the study indicates that of the 23,926 deaths[30] investigated during the course of the study, 5910 of them were related to CVD[30] and there was no statistical significance between the risk of unprocessed and processed red meats factors in the occurrence of CVD.[30] The disparity between metadata studies definitely need to be addressed, because while one points toward unprocessed red meat being insignificant in certain health risks, there are still correlations to be found in focused large cohort studies.[30][29]

Unprocessed red meat intake is tentatively associated with an increased risk of type II diabetes, but the link is weaker and less certain than the link between processed red meat and diabetes.[31] Other findings have suggested that the association may be due to saturated fat, trans fat and dietary cholesterol, rather than red meat per se.[32] One study estimated that “substitutions of one serving of nuts, low-fat dairy, and whole grains per day for one serving of red meat per day were associated with a 16–35% lower risk of type 2 diabetes”.[33]

Processed meat

Most processed meat contains at least some red meat.[17] To enhance flavor or improve preservation meat is treated by salting, curing, fermentation, smoking, or other processes to create processed meat.[17] Nitrates and nitrites found in processed meat (e.g. bacon, ham, salami, pepperoni, hot dogs, and some sausages) can be converted by the human body into nitrosamines that can be carcinogenic, causing mutation in the colorectal cell line, thereby causing tumorigenesis and eventually leading to cancer.[34] In its Press Release 240 (16 Oct. 2015) the International Agency for Research on Cancer, based on a review of 800 studies over 20 years, concluded that processed meat is definitely carcinogenic (Group 1) and found that for each additional 50g of processed meat consumed per day, the risk of colorectal cancer increased by 18% (up to a maximum of approximately 140g);[18] it also found that there appeared to be an increase in gastric cancer but this was not as clear.[19]

A 2016 literature review found that for the each additional 50g per day of processed meat (e.g., bacon, ham, hot dogs, sausages) consumed, the risk increased 4% for total prostate cancer, 8% for cancer mortality, 9% for breast cancer, 18% for colorectal cancer, 19% for pancreatic cancer, 13% for stroke, 24% for cardiovascular mortality and 32% for diabetes.[16]


Meat with a dark surface common to cooking at high temperature

Cooking any meat at a high temperature or smoking meat produces carcinogenic polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon compounds (PAHs) and heterocyclic amines (HCAs).[35] The subgroups of heterocyclic amines compounds are amino-dimethylimidazo-quinoxaline (MelQx), amino-dimethylimidazo-quinoxaline (DiMelQx), and amino-methyl-phenylimidazo-pyridine (PhIP), which are mostly formed when meat is cooked at high temperatures. Benzo[a]pyrene (B[a]P) is another compound found in meat cooked at extremely high temperatures. Likely because of these factors, marinating fresh lean red meat, and thoroughly cooking it at a low temperature will reduce the production of carcinogenic compounds and thereby lower the risk of colorectal cancer.[36][37]

See also


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  2. ^ "White Meat". thefreedictionary.com. 
  3. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2016-12-30. Retrieved 2017-04-29. 
  4. ^ a b Larousse Gastronomique, first edition
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h "Iowa State Animal Science". Archived from the original on 2009-03-24. Retrieved 2009-09-16. 
  6. ^ a b c d e f "USDA-Safety of Fresh Pork...from Farm to Table". Fsis.usda.gov. 2008-05-16. Archived from the original on 2013-09-18. Retrieved 2009-09-16. 
  7. ^ Larousse Gastronomique, 1961, s.v. pork
  8. ^ Dougherty, Philip H. "ADVERTISING; Dressing Pork for Success" Archived 2017-02-14 at the Wayback Machine., The New York Times, January 15, 1987. Accessed April 22, 2009.
  9. ^ Hall, Trish. "And This Little Piggy Is Now on the Menu" Archived 2017-02-14 at the Wayback Machine., The New York Times, November 13, 1991. Accessed April 22, 2009.
  10. ^ Kansas State University Agricultural Experiment Station and Cooperative Extension Service, Red Meats: Nutrient Contributions to the Diet, September 20 BC, [1] Archived September 12, 2006, at the Wayback Machine.
  11. ^ Nutritional composition of red meat Archived 2011-03-10 at the Wayback Machine.
  12. ^ a b c Harvard School of Public Health, 2012. Food Pyramids: What Should You Really Eat Archived 2009-04-16 at the Wayback Machine.
  13. ^ USDA MyPlate Protein foods Archived 2013-01-16 at the Wayback Machine. Page accessed February 27, 2015
  14. ^ Sabine Rohrmann; Kim Overvad; European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition; et al. (7 March 2013). "Meat consumption and mortality – results from the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition". BMC Medicine. 11 (1): 63. doi:10.1186/1741-7015-11-63. PMC 3599112Freely accessible. PMID 23497300. Archived from the original on 9 March 2013. Retrieved March 7, 2013. The results of our analysis support a moderate positive association between processed meat consumption and mortality, in particular due to cardiovascular diseases, but also to cancer. 
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