Red meat has returned to the headlines, after research by the Harvard School of Medicine suggested even relatively modest quantities increased the risk of dying prematurely.

Researchers found people who ate, on average, one serving of red meat per day – about 84g – had a higher risk of dying prematurely, with consumption of large amounts of processed red meats, such as bacon and hams, being associated with a particularly high risk.

They estimated that if those people had reduced their red meat intake to half a serving a day – about 42g – nearly 10% of premature deaths in men, and 7.6% of premature deaths in women, could have been prevented.

Health guidelines in the UK recommend people do not eat more than 70g of red meat a day – an amount described as “generous” by one of the report’s co-authors, Dr Frank Hu.

“Given the growing evidence that even modest amounts of red meat are associated with increased risk of chronic disease and premature death, two and a half ounces per day seems generous,” he was quoted in The Telegraph. “The bottom line is we should make red meat an occasional rather than a regular part of our diet.”

But Carrie Ruxton, a nutritionist with the Meat Advisory Panel – which is funded by the red meat industry – said the UK’s guidelines on red meat consumption had been found to be safe, adding that average intakes in the UK were already below 70g a day. “This suggests that, for most people, red meat consumption is not associated with health risk, and does not need to be reduced,” she said.

The Harvard School of Medicine study also noted that people who ate a lot of red meat were “less likely to be physically active” and more likely to be current smokers, to drink alcohol and to have a higher body mass index, but added that these non-red meat factors had been accounted for when assessing the impact of red meat on people’s mortality rates.