Red meat, processed meat and white meat

Red meat is red when raw and does not turn white when it is cooked. Most meat from adult mammals fits these criteria. It is also defined as meat with more than a certain level of myoglobin (an iron-containing protein in muscle). Pork is sometimes considered red if the animal is adult, but white if young (a suckling piglet) and the same applies to sheep – mutton is considered red while the flesh of a young lamb is described by some as white.

Generally, the meat from mammals such as cows and calves, sheep, lamb and pigs is considered red, while chicken, turkey and rabbit meat is considered white. Game birds such as pheasants, geese or ducks are sometimes put in a separate category altogether but for the purposes of this report, will be included in the white meat category. 

Red meat

The common definition of red meat includes:

  • beef and veal
  • mutton and lamb
  • pork
  • venison
  • goat
  • horse
  • burgers
  • mince

Burgers and minced meats do not count as processed meat unless they have been preserved with salt or chemical additives.

Processed meat

Processed meat refers to meat that has been preserved by smoking, curing, salting or adding chemical preservatives such as sodium nitrite. Putting fresh meat through a mincer does not make it processed meat. In general, processed meat has had something done to it to extend its shelf life or change its taste. Most processed meats contain pork or beef, but they may also contain other red or white meats, offal or meat by-products such as blood.  

The common definition of processed meat includes:

  • sausages
  • bacon
  • ham
  • hot dogs or frankfurters
  • tinned meat
  • salami
  • pâtés
  • beef jerky
  • chorizo
  • pepperoni
  • corned beef

White meat

White meat refers to meat that is light-coloured before and after cooking. Chicken is the archetypal white meat. However, the term is generally used for all poultry, even if the meat is technically red, as in duck. Some consider the meat of milk-fed calves (white veal) white too.

Rather more contentious is the inclusion of pork, which may turn white when cooked, but is also from a mammal. From 1987-2011 the US National Pork Board ran the advertising slogan “Pork. The Other White Meat” in an effort to suggest that pork was healthier than other red meats. However, neither the UK Food Standards Agency (FSA) not the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) classifies pork as a white meat.

White or pale meat can include poultry and game birds as well as rabbit:

  • chicken
  • turkey
  • duck
  • goose
  • pheasant
  • rabbit 

Fish

Fish is also referred to by some people as white meat. This may refer to both white fish (which is white before and after cooking) and fatty fish such as salmon and tuna (salmon remains pink when cooked but tuna turns white). Seafood (invertebrates) may also be referred to as white meat, particularly if white before or after cooking, such as shrimp, oysters and scallops. For the purposes of this report, fish will be excluded. See Viva!Health’s Fish Report for information on the detrimental health effects of fish and advice on where to get healthy omega-3 fats: www.vivahealth.org.uk/resources/scientific-reports/fish-report

Current government advice

Current advice, issued by the Department of Health in 2011, says: “Adults who eat more than 90g of red and processed meat a day should reduce their intake to 70g a day” (NHS Choices, 2015). This advice is based on a 2010 report by the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN) called Iron and Health, (SACN, 2010). SACN is a committee of independent nutrition experts which advises the government on diet and nutrition.

This advice followed on directly from a joint report from the WCRF and the AICR published in 2007. The WCRF/AICR’s Second Expert Report, Food, Nutrition, Physical Activity, and the Prevention of Cancer: a Global Perspective set out recommendations for cancer prevention based on a comprehensive review of the scientific evidence in this area (WCRF/AICR, 2007). The report involved hundreds of experts in specialist working groups, who reviewed all the evidence to date about the link between food, nutrition, weight gain, being overweight and physical activity and the risk of cancer. The report presented their findings and recommendations to decrease cancer risk.

The report stated that the public health goal for the population average consumption of red meat should be no more than 300g a week, very little if any of which to be processed. The personal recommendation, for individuals who eat meat, was set at less than 500g a week, with little, if any, processed meat. This suggests that it is best to avoid all processed meat, which means no bacon or ham, ever. However, this message has largely become lost as government advice tends to lump red and processed meat together as one category.  

One week’s intake of red and processed meat amounting to less than 500g could include:

  • One cooked breakfast (two sausages and two thin-cut rashers of bacon): 130g
  • One slice of ham: 23g
  • A quarter pounder beef burger: 78g 
  • An eight ounce beef steak, grilled: 163g
  • One portion of Sunday roast (three thin-cut slices of roast lamb, beef or pork each about the size of half a slice of sliced bread): 90g

Many meat-eaters consume significantly more than this; some might eat this amount in just two days!