The epidemiologic literature on the relationship between vegetable and fruit consumption and human cancer at a variety of sites is reviewed systematically. A total of 13 ecologic studies, nine cohort studies, and 115 case-control studies are included. Cancer of all sites, cancers of lung, breast, colon, rectum, esophagus, larynx, oral cavity and pharynx, stomach, pancreas, prostate, bladder, ovary, endometrium, cervix, and thyroid, as well as mesothelioma and gestational trophoblastic disease, are considered. Relevant data from clinical trials, animal, and in vitro studies are included. It is 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. The association is most marked for epithelial cancers--particularly those of the alimentary and respiratory tracts--and, currently, is weak to nonexistent for hormone-related cancers. The association exists for a wide variety of vegetables and fruit with some suggestion that raw forms are associated most consistently with lower risk. Possible mechanisms by which vegetable and fruit intake might alter risk of cancer and possible adverse effects of vegetable and fruit consumption will be considered in Part II of this review.