Foods That Fight Cancer


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The tasty fruit we eat today likely descends from wild apples in Central Asia. Wild apples' genetic diversity allows growers to develop thousands of varieties. The popular “Honeycrisp,” cultivated around 1960, is a cross of Macoun and Honeygold apples. Most apples we see in the grocery store are best for eating raw, but some varieties are more commonly used for cooking.

What's in Apples?

Nutrition facts for apples

Apples are a good source of fiber and vitamin C. Most of the antioxidant power they provide comes from phytochemicals, including:

  • Quercetin: a flavonoid that shows anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties
  • Other flavonoids, including epicatechin and, in red apples, anthocyanins
  • Triterpenoids are found especially in apple peel


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The Cancer Research

One apple provides at least 10 percent of the recommended daily amount of vitamin C and fiber. Dietary fiber can act in several ways to lower cancer risk, including helping with weight control. (Excess body fat increases the risk of ten different cancers, and dietary fiber can increase the feeling of fullness.) Gut bacteria can use pectin, a major portion of apples’ dietary fiber, to produce compounds that protect colon cells.

Apples also contain a variety of phytochemicals that scientists are studying for their anti-cancer effects.  The peel of the apple contains a third or more of its phytochemical compounds. About 80 percent of quercetin, for example, is located in the peel.

Current Evidence: AICR/WCRF Expert Report and its Updates (CUP)

Apples are fruits that contain fiber. After a systematic review of the global scientific literature, AICR/WCRF analyzed how these factors affect the risk of developing cancer. This comprehensive review of decades of research concluded that there is strong – probable – evidence that:

- foods containing dietary fiber DECREASE the risk of colorectal cancer

- a diet high in fruits along with non-starchy vegetables DECREASE the risk of lips, mouth, tongue and other aerodigestive cancers

Evidence categorized as "probable" means there is strong research showing a causal relationship to cancer – either decreasing or increasing the risk. The research must include quality human studies that meet specific criteria and biological explanations for the findings. A probable judgement is strong enough to justify recommendations.

Source: AICR/WCRF. Diet, Nutrition, Physical Activity and Cancer: A Global Perspective, 2018.

”Research is pointing to the fact there is not one single phytochemical that supplies apples’ anti-cancer properties... It’s the whole apple.”
- Rui Hai Liu, Cornell University.

Open Areas of Investigation: Laboratory Research

In laboratory studies, flavonoids such as quercetin and the triterpenoids found in apples have slowed the development of cancers of the colon, lung and breast in several stages of cancer development. Current research suggests that protection may come as much from directly affecting cell growth as from antioxidant activity. 

Open Areas of Investigation: Human Studies

Human studies have generally focused on the category of fruits and cancer risk. But because apples are the second most commonly consumed fruit in the United States – bananas are the first – researchers have also been able to look at apple intake, specifically.

Human studies include case-control studies, which compare groups of people with and without cancer checking for a difference in apple consumption. It also includes cohort studies that follow people without cancer for several years and then look at how many apples participants generally consumed.  In some of these studies, people who consume the most apples show lower cancer risk, particularly of the colon, lung and breast, although results are not consistent.

AICR-Supported Studies
Grant Number Title
09A020: Dietary Induced Sporadic Colon Cancer
87A31: Dietary Antioxidants and Transplacental Carcinogenesis
99A083: Effect of Antioxidant Vitamins on Radioimmunotherapy-Induced Normal Tissue Toxicity
91SG16: Modification of Mutagen Sensitivity by Dietary and Chemopreventive Factors in Head and Neck Cancer in Vitro
89SG19: Effect of Soluble Fibers on Colonic Physiology
95A27: Vitamin Intervention in Smokers
05A079: Breast Cancer and eNOS Suppression by Quercetin
86A45: Anticarcinogenicity of Dietary Flavonol Quercetin
93B43: Dietary Antioxidants and Protein Kinase C Oxidative Activation in Tumor Promotion
03B113: Tumor Radiosensitization by Dietary Quercetin
99A027: Diet, Oxidative DNA Damage and Breast Cancer Risk
93A76: Nutritional Determinants of Breast Cancer
90A52: Nutritional Determinants of Breast Cancer
09A056: The Role of Dietary Fiber and Gut Microflora in Prevention of Colorectal Cancer
92A13: Causal Relationship Between Fusel Alcohols and Esophageal Cancer
91B36: Studies on In Vivo Nitrosation
06A031: Leukemia-associated Chromosomal Abnormalities: the Role of Prenatal Exposure to Dietary Topoisomerase II Inhibitors and Mutation in the ATM Gene
09A097: Adolescent Diet and Benign Breast Disease
95A24: Mechanism of Fatty Acid Effects
94A25: Fatty Acids, Mitochrondia and Molecular Genetics of Colon Cancer
95B025: Short Chain Fatty Acid Metabolism and APC Initiated Colon Cancer
91SG05: Azoxymethane-induced Colon Cancer in Rats Fed Varying Levels of Bean(Phaseolous vulgaris) Dietary Fiber
92A05: Fatty Acids, Mitochondria, and Molecular Genetics of Colon Cancer
95B029: Gene-Environment Interaction in Heterocyclic Amine Carcinogenesis
97A106: Diet, Oxidative DNA Damage and Breast Cancer Risk
96B009: Identification of Citric Acid Induced Apoptosis Genes
88A27: Chemoprevention by the Bitter Principles of Citrus Fruits
91SG21: Colon Carcinogenesis: Nutritional Modulation of Biomakers
96A078: Activation of a Tumor Suppressor Gene by Nutrient Derivatives
06A057: Chemoprevention of Colon Cancer Using Bromelain from Pineapple
87B62: Dietary Treatment for the Prevention of Cervix Dysplasias
06A127: Role of Apple in the Prevention of Cancer

In the Kitchen


  • Choose firm, shiny, smooth-skinned apples with intact stems.
  • Popular varieties for eating raw include the sweet Red Delicious, Golden Delicious and Gala, and the more tart Braeburn and Fuji.
  • Varieties that hold their texture in cooking and baking include Cortland, Jonagold, Pippin, Granny Smith, and Ida Red.


  • Refrigerate apples in a plastic bag away from strong-odored foods and use within three weeks.
  • If one apple is damaged or rotting, remove it so that it does not affect others.


  • Chopped apples add a nice sweetness and texture to vegetable salads and extra crunch to fruit salads.
  • Bake or stew apples with vegetables such as carrots, winter squash and sweet potatoes.
  • For a quick dessert, core apples and stuff with raisins and cinnamon. Top with a tablespoon of cider or water, cover with waxed paper and microwave for 2 minutes each.
  • Sliced apples turn brown quickly when exposed to air. Minimize browning by dipping the apples in water with lemon or other citrus juice.
  • Substitute applesauce for up to 1/2 of the oil to lower calories and fat in baked goods such as quick breads and cakes.

Pork Chops with Braised Red Cabbage, Apple and Cranberries

Photo of Pork Chop with Apple recipe
  • 1 small red cabbage, about 1 lb., quartered and cored
  • 1 Tbsp. canola oil
  • 4 boneless lean center-cut pork chops, 4-ounces each
  • 2 cups thinly sliced red onion
  • 2 Granny Smith apples, peeled, cored and cut into 12 slices each
  • 2/3 cup dried cranberries
  • 3/4 cup pomegranate juice
  • 1/4 cup red wine vinegar
  • Zest of 1/2 orange
  • 1 tsp. ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp. ground nutmeg
  • 1/4 tsp. ground cloves
  • 1/4 tsp. ground black pepper
  • Salt, to taste

Cut cabbage crosswise into 1/2-inch strips. There should be about 6 cups. Reserve any extra to use in salads or another use.

Heat oil in large skillet over medium-high heat. Brown pork chops on each side, about 1 minute, and remove from pan. Add onion to pan and cook until limp, 3 minutes. Add cabbage, apples and cranberries and cook, stirring occasionally, until cabbage is wilted, 4-5 minutes. Pour in juice and vinegar, and cook 3 minutes. Mix in zest, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves and pepper. Add salt, to taste. Reduce heat to medium and cook for 15 minutes, then add chops. Cook until cabbage is tender and pork registers 160 degrees F on meat thermometer, 5-10 minutes, stirring occasionally.

To serve, spread 5 cups of cabbage onto platter, and top with chops. If there is cabbage remaining, cool and refrigerate, covered, for up to 5 days.

Makes 4 servings.

Per serving: 410 calories, 12 g total fat (2 g saturated fat), 51g carbohydrate,
28 g protein, 7 g dietary fiber, 105 mg sodium.

More Recipes
Below are answers to some of the most frequently asked questions we get asked.


Which fruits and vegetables should I be eating?


Eat as many different vegetables and fruits as you can. Variety is the key to obtaining the many protective phytochemicals. Each vegetable and fruit has its own profile of health-promoting substances.

The phytochemicals found in cantaloupe are different from those in broccoli or leeks or cherries. Try to include a lot of colors on your plate. Aim to eat some bright red, green, orange, blue, purple and yellow vegetables and fruits each day.


Should I buy organic foods whenever possible?


There are many reasons to eat organic foods, but currently, there is no convincing evidence that shows a difference between organic and conventionally grown foods related to cancer risk. Studies show pesticide residues on conventionally grown foods are almost always within safety tolerance limits.

If you are concerned about pesticide residues and can afford to spend more, organic produce may be a choice for you. Eating generous servings of a large variety of veggies and fruits - whether organic or not will benefit your health. The advantages of including more vegetables and fruits in your diet outweigh the potential risks from pesticides.


Can grilled meats really cause cancer?


Lab studies show that exposing meats to direct flame, smoke and intense heat (like when you grill or broil) can cause the formation of carcinogens (cancer-causing substances). Cooking methods that involve less heat, such as microwaving, baking, steaming and poaching, do not promote the formation of these substances.

Several strategies you can use to cut carcinogen formation on meat include marinating, flipping frequently, removing excess fat from meat before cooking, and microwaving for part of the cooking time. So for delicious and healthful options, try grilling vegetables, veggie burgers and fruit slices and cut down on meat, fish and poultry.