5 cancer-fighting foods that have researchers’ attention

By Naveed Saleh, MD, MS
Published April 8, 2021

Key Takeaways

Cancer is a major cause of death worldwide. Although advances in treatment are occurring at great speed, additional new agents to prevent disease are integral to the battle against cancer. Bioactive compounds found in vegetables, fruits, and other plant-based foods have garnered much attention for potential anticancer properties.

According to the American Institute for Cancer Research, no single plant or vegetable likely represents a magic bullet for cancer prevention. Instead, variety may be key.

“[R]esearch shows that a diet filled with a variety of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, beans, and other plant foods helps lower risk for many cancers. In laboratory studies, many individual minerals, vitamins, and phytochemicals demonstrate anti-cancer effects,” they wrote.

Here are five foods with anticancer potential.


Pancreatic cancer is an aggressive and deadly disease that kills about 50% of patients within six months of diagnosis. Because it can remain asymptomatic for some time, early diagnosis and treatment are challenging. The anti-cancer effects of foods may be particularly relevant in preventing this silent killer. 

Cherries and sour cherries, as well as berries and apples, are rich in polyphenols. According to the authors of a review published in Antioxidants, “A large number of polyphenols have been shown to have potent antitumor, anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and proapoptotic effects on cell cultures of various human cancers.”

More specifically, antiproliferative and antimetastatic, as well as inhibitory effects, of polyphenols have been observed in cell lines of pancreatic cancer. 

However, the authors noted that the concentrations of polyphenols used for in vitro experiments well surpass, sometimes thousands of times, the concentrations that can be used in humans. What’s more, polyphenols are not absorbed well in the human GI tract and are quickly metabolized and excreted.

“Therefore, future research could focus on a form of drug that would allow for better absorption and bioavailability of polyphenols. The application of nanoparticles is one approach to improve the bioavailability of polyphenols,” the authors concluded.

In addition to cancer-fighting properties, cherries, along with the other fruits mentioned above, are among foods that boast “antiaging properties,” according to researchers.


Oxidative stress due to extended exposure to ultraviolet radiation plays a role in the development of skin cancer. Antioxidants derived from natural products including blueberries have been researched for their preventive roles in the development of this disease. In a review published in Heliyon, researchers found evidence of such protective roles based on in vivo and in vitro studies, which demonstrated antiproliferative and antioxidant properties.

“Results showed protective effects on skin cells associated with blueberries phenolic compounds that included inhibition of proliferation and cell cycle arrest in malignant cells, decreased oxidized macromolecules, down-regulation of inflammatory cytokine genes, and mitigated oxidative stress,” the authors wrote. “These biological responses suggest that a chemopreventive option against skin cancer could be the inclusion of these substances in the daily diet.”

Besides fighting cancer, blueberries are among certain fruits thought to be helpful in diminishing age-related cognitive decline.

Cruciferous vegetables

Brussels sprouts, cabbage, and cauliflower are all forms of cruciferous vegetables, and rich in a class of phytochemicals referred to as isothiocyanates. Isothiocyanates have exhibited anticancer properties in both in vivo and in vitro studies. In a preclinical study published in Antioxidants, for example, researchers examined the anticancer mechanisms of these phytochemicals in both metastatic and nonmetastatic melanoma cell lines.

“The distribution of cell cycle phases followed a similar pattern in a manner where non-metastatic and metastatic melanoma cells appeared to be growth-arrested at the G2/M phase while elevated levels of metastatic melanoma cells were shown to be at sub G1 phase, an indicator of necrotic cell death,” the authors wrote. “Finally, metastatic melanoma cells were more sensitive [to] apoptosis and/or necrosis as higher levels were observed compared to non-melanoma epidermoid carcinoma and non-tumorigenic cells.”

In general, nonmelanoma epidermoid carcinoma and nontumorigenic cells were generally more resistant under any experimental exposure condition, they added.

The authors noted that their study provides further evidence for the potential development of isothiocyanates as promising anti-cancer agents against nonmetastatic and metastatic melanoma cells— “a property specific for these cells and not shared by non-melanoma epidermoid carcinoma or non-tumorigenic melanocyte cells,” they concluded.


The bioactive compound bergamottin is found in the pulp of grapefruits and pomelo citrus fruit. This type of furanocoumarin is a widely recognized inhibitor of cytochrome P450.

“Recent studies have demonstrated potent anti-oxidative, anti-inflammatory, and anti-cancer properties of grapefruit furanocoumarin both in vitro and in vivo,” according to the authors of a review published in the International Journal of  Molecular Sciences. The authors specifically cited in vitro research pointing to the anticancer effects of bergamottin with respect to glioma, breast cancer, multiple myeloma, prostate cancer, liver cancer, and more. The authors also noted that in vivo studies have shown antineoplastic effects with skin and lung cancer.

Here’s a more detailed look at the anti-inflammatory, anticancer, neuroprotective, metabolic, and cardioprotective properties associated with grapefruit and other citrus fruits.


Pomegranates (Punica granatum) are a rich source of highly bioavailable polyphenols. The role of polyphenols in the prevention and treatment of malignancy has long been recognized in both specialist and nonspecialist literature. Other bioactive compounds found in pomegranates include anthocyanins, ellagitannins, flavonols, flavonols, gallotannins, and proanthocyanidins.

The authors of a systematic review published in Molecules noted that polyphenols from pomegranate demonstrate strong anticancer activity, via multiple mechanisms including antiestrogenic, antiangiogenic, antiproliferative, antimetastatic, and anti-inflammatory.

“Pomegranate extracts induced cell cycle arrest in the G0/G1 phase, and induced cytotoxicity in a dose- and time-dependent manner. Moreover, several polyphenols extracted from pomegranate inhibited the invasion potential, migration and viability of breast cancer cells.” Of note, the antiestrogenic properties in pomegranate may help prevent or treat breast cancer.

And, while we’re singing the praises of pomegranates, this powerhouse fruit also plays a role in preventing metabolic diseases, including hypertension.  

Bottom line

Despite significant progress in cancer treatment options and the development of novel targeted therapies, there is still an unmet need to identify novel pharmacological agents for cancer therapy, according to the aforementioned article in the International Journal of  Molecular Sciences. This is why researchers are investigating the possible application of natural compounds found in fruits, vegetables, and plant-derived products that could be promising for cancer prevention and treatment. 

To learn more about other foods that can play a role in preventing or fighting cancer, click here

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