Red Meat and Nutrition

Red meat has long played an important role in the diet of humans. But exactly what do we mean when we talk about red meat? Red meat is made up of muscles that are used for extended periods of activity, such as standing, running or moving around. These activities require a consistent energy source. Hence the protein myoglobin stores oxygen in the muscle, and the oxygen is used to produce energy needed for constant activities. Myoglobin is a reddish pigment colored protein. The more myoglobin available in the cells, the redder, or darker the meat appear. The term 'red meat' is used by the meat industry to refer to meat from cattle, sheep and goat (ie beef, veal, lamb, mutton and goat meat). As far as nutrition is concerned, red meat contains a unique bundle of nutrients essential for good health. Learn more about red meat's role in a healthy diet.



Red meat is a significant source of high-quality protein, providing all the essential amino acids. Just 100 g of uncooked red meat contains around 20 – 25 g of protein. The protein in beef and lamb is highly digestible – around 94% compared with the digestibility of 78% in beans and 86% in whole wheat.



Red meat is one of the richest sources of haem-iron. Iron in red meat is well absorbed compared to non-haem iron in plant foods. Iron is important for the transport of oxygen, production of energy and is essential for brain development.



Red meat is an important source of the antioxidant selenium which helps maintain the immune system.



Red meat is an important source of B-group vitamins including riboflavin, niacin, pantothenic acid, vitamin B6 and in particular vitamin B12. Vitamin B12 cannot be found in plant foods, therefore inadequate intakes of B12 are a problem in strict vegetarians. Lacking vitamin B12 can adversely affect neurological function including memory and concentration.



Australian red meat is also an important natural source of long-chain omega-3s having levels greater than 30 mg in a 150 g serving. Omega-3s are essential to the healthy functioning of the nervous system and important to heart health.



Red meat is a good source of zinc, an essential nutrient for the immune system, growth and wound healing. The zinc in red meat and other animal foods is better absorbed than from plant foods. Because of this the requirement for zinc is 50% higher for individuals who are strict vegetarians.



The most recent nutritional analyses show that when trimmed of external fat, red meat has less than 4% saturated fat.


For further reading:

1. Howe P et. al, (2006): "Dietary intake of long-chain omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids: Contribution of meat sources." Nutrition;22:47-53.

2. Baghurst K, Record S, Leppard P. (2000): "Red meat consumption in Australia: Intakes, nutrient contribution and changes over time." Aust J Nutr 57(4): Suppl.

3. National Health and Medical Research Council (2003): "Dietary Guidelines for Australians," Canberra: Commonwealth Department of Health and Ageing.

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