Vegetables, fruit, and cancer. II. Mechanisms

Cancer Causes Control. 1991 Nov;2(6):427-42. doi: 10.1007/BF00054304.


The epidemiologic literature on the relationship between vegetable and fruit consumption and human cancer at a variety of sites was reviewed systematically in Part I. It was concluded that consumption of higher levels of vegetables and fruit is associated consistently, although not universally, with a reduced risk of cancer at most sites, and particularly with epithelial cancers of the alimentary and respiratory tracts. Possible mechanisms by which vegetable and fruit intake might alter risk of cancer are addressed here. A large number of potentially anticarcinogenic agents are found in these food sources, including carotenoids, vitamins C and E, selenium, dietary fiber, dithiolthiones, glucosinolates and indoles, isothiocyanates, flavonoids, phenols, protease inhibitors, plant sterols, allium compounds, and limonene. These agents have both complementary and overlapping mechanisms of action, including the induction of detoxification enzymes, inhibition of nitrosamine formation, provision of substrate for formation of antineoplastic agents, dilution and binding of carcinogens in the digestive tract, alteration of hormone metabolism, antioxidant effects, and others. It appears extremely unlikely that any one substance is responsible for all the associations seen. Possible adverse effects of vegetable and fruit consumption are also examined. One way to consider the relationships reviewed here is to hypothesize that humans are adapted to a high intake of plant foods that supply substances crucial to the maintenance of the organism, but only some of which are currently called 'essential nutrients.' Cancer may be the result of reducing the level of intake of foods that are metabolically necessary--it may be a disease of maladaptation.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Diet*
  • Fruit* / adverse effects
  • Humans
  • Neoplasms / etiology
  • Neoplasms / prevention & control*
  • Vegetables* / adverse effects