Red meat - which to choose and how much to eat?

Nutrition advisers agree about red meat being rich sources of iron, zinc, omega 3 fatty acids, vitamins especially B12 and suggest that these are good for the health of heart as well as the brain. However recent propaganda says too much red meat and processed meat can be harmful for health including raising the risk for certain cancers.

Most of the general population thus remains confused when choosing red meat about which one to take and in what quantities.

Variety of meat slices in boxes in supermarket. Image Credit: NotarYES / Shutterstock
Variety of meat slices in boxes in supermarket. Image Credit: NotarYES / Shutterstock

Australian dietary guidelines recommend limiting lean red meat to a maximum of 455 grams per week. This equates to three or four pieces of cooked meat with each of the size of the palm.

There are speculations that grass and organically fed animal meat can be healthier than routinely produced meat. Those that are claimed to be organic are grown without synthetic pesticides and herbicides and are also free from antibiotics and growth hormones. However experts state that none of these labels are standardized and there are no “legal definitions” of which meat is organic and which is not. The ones that are organic still use pesticides that can contain sulfur, pyrethins and copper. These can be harmful. The levels of these pesticides are monitored and controlled by the Australian Food Standards code.

Antibiotics are used in non-organic meat. However organic meat might be contaminated with bacteria and non-organic meat may be contaminated with antibiotic resistant bacteria. This means that both forms of meat may not be different in terms of risk of contamination and infection.

While several claims are made that organically produced meats contain more omega 3 fatty acids, there is no sold scientific research that proves this. Even if there are small differences in levels of omega 3 fatty acids, it is not certain that consuming these can provide extra health benefits.

Most of the non-organically produced meats are from cattle that have been grown using growth hormones. The Australian guidelines allow the use of estrogen, progesterone and testosterone to fatten and grow their cattle. The difference between hormone fed and hormone free meat is small and a person needs to eat over 77 kg of hormone treated beef at a single sitting to get levels of estrogen same as that of an egg. This makes hormone treated meat just as safe for consumption as hormone free labels.

There are grain and grass fed animals that are being used as meat. Grain fed meat is usually marbled and animals are bigger in size compared to grass fed meat. Grass fed meat contains higher levels of fat soluble vitamins such as vitamin A and E as well as omega 3 fatty acids. The levels of the omega 3 fatty acids in grass fed red meat however remains lower than that of a salmon which is a richer source of these fatty acids at 90 milligrams per 100 grams and 1.6 to 2.7 grams per 100 grams respectively. Grain fed animals also typically contain more fat and their meat is less lean.

Another kind of beef is the Wagyu beef that comes and highly marbled with fat within the muscles. These cattle have been grain fed for over 300 days and have high marbled meat with high fat contents. The levels of unsaturated fats in these meats is higher than saturated fats that make them a healthier choice.

There are two cuts of meat sold – lean or low fat. While lean meats contain less than 10 grams of fat per 100 grams, low fat produce contain less than 3 grams of fat per 100 grams. Lean cuts are a better nutritional choice say experts.

One of the major problems with organically produced meat is their higher cost. They may cost up to one and half times to twice as much as conventional produce. The up side is that organically produced meats are a better option for social and environmental causes.

Meats are also classified according to their fat content, marbling, acidity, colour etc. according to the Meat Standards Australia (MSA). MSA graded meats meet standards and are recommended. However the MSA grade signifies the production variables more than nutritional values of these meats.

There seems to be little nutritional difference between organic and non-organic meats, grass and grain fed meat and other varieties based on scientific evidence. Choice of meats thus depends upon individual preferences rather than recommendations.


Dr. Ananya Mandal

Written by

Dr. Ananya Mandal

Dr. Ananya Mandal is a doctor by profession, lecturer by vocation and a medical writer by passion. She specialized in Clinical Pharmacology after her bachelor's (MBBS). For her, health communication is not just writing complicated reviews for professionals but making medical knowledge understandable and available to the general public as well.


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The opinions expressed here are the views of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of News Medical.
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