Foods That Fight Cancer




Did George Washington cut down a sweet or tart cherry tree? In the 1600s settlers brought cherry trees to America; by the late 1800s cherry orchards flourished in northern Michigan and the Pacific Northwest. Today, Michigan produces most of our tart cherries and northwestern states produce 60 percent of sweet cherries. Some studies show that compounds in cherries may help relieve pain from arthritis, gout and headaches.

What's in Cherries?

nutrition facts label cherries
tart cherries nutrition facts

Both sweet and tart cherries are a good source of fiber and vitamin C, and they contain potassium. Tart cherries, but not sweet cherries or tart cherry juice, are also an excellent source of vitamin A. Cherries contain a variety of phytochemicals contributing both color and antioxidant activity:

  • The fruit’s dark red color comes from their high content of anthocyanins, which are antioxidants
  • Hydroxycinnamic acid and perillyl alcohol, a phytochemical from the monoterpene family, provide cherries’ antioxidant power

Both sweet and tart cherries supply these antioxidant substances, though tart cherries contain more.

The antioxidants in cherry juice and dried cherries (both unsweetened and sweetened) are similar to fresh cherries, according to producer data. Frozen cherries’ antioxidant content is somewhat lower, and canned cherries’ decreases further but remains significant.

Related Links:

Picture of cherries

The Cancer Research

Cherries contain numerous phytochemicals and nutrients, many of which are well studied in the laboratory. They also contain dietary fiber, which is linked to lower risk of colorectal cancer. Consuming high amounts of dietary fiber may also help people control their weight by giving a feeling of fullness. That is important to cancer risk because excess body fat increases the risk of 12 cancers.

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

Cherries 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.

”Cherries are a good example of how fruits and vegetables can give you important amounts of fiber, nutrients and phytochemicals without needing to have 'superstar' levels.”
Karen Collins, MS, RD, CDN.

Open Areas of Investigation: Laboratory Research

Laboratory research is extensive on the group of compounds in cherries called anthocyanins. In laboratory studies, anthocyanins inhibit the growth of cancer cells and stimulate their self-destruction, without affecting healthy cells. These compounds also show anti-inflammatory and strong antioxidant effects. Lab studies on dietary fiber suggest it reduces cells’ exposure to cancer-causing substances. Healthful gut bacteria use dietary fiber to produce short-chain fatty acids that protect colon cells.

In comparison, there are relatively few studies on the cancer effects of the phytochemical perillyl alcohol. Limited studies suggest that perillyl alcohol acts as an antioxidant and stimulates self-destruction of abnormal cells. It also may inhibit cancer growth in animals, at least in part by inhibiting the process of angiogenesis, the formation of new blood vessels that tumors rely on to spread.

Open Areas of Investigation: Human Studies

Most human studies look at overall fruit consumption. Comparing people who develop cancer with those who do not, studies show lower risk of several cancers in those who eat more fruits compared to those who eat relatively few. Beyond the impact of overall fruit consumption in large population studies, more research is needed to understand the impact of cherry consumption in particular on cancer risk.

Clinical Trials: A few short-term human trials have shown that sweet cherries and tart cherry juice improve antioxidant effects and reduce signs of inflammation. These studies used two to three servings daily of cherries or cherry juice.

In some short-term intervention trials, scientists have seen promise in cherries' perillyl alcohol. Researchers have tested this isolated compound among people at high risk for or with some types of cancer. But researchers have much to learn about dose, form and effective methods of delivery, as well as how to identify who might benefit most. Researchers cannot yet translate the clinical trial findings on perillyl alcohol to how consuming cherries may affect cancer development. When a compound such as perillyl alcohol is consumed in foods, the amount and way it is absorbed is likely different than when consumed in isolation.

AICR-Supported Studies
Grant Number Title
93A04: Effect of Zinc Replenishment on Cell Proliferation and Esophageal Carcinogenesis in Zinc Deficient Rats
09A020: Dietary Induced Sporadic Colon Cancer
08A083: Transcriptional Attenuation Induced by Sodium Butyrate and Vitamin D3 in Colon Cancer Cells
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
92A69: Chemopreventive Effects of Vitamin A
89SG19: Effect of Soluble Fibers on Colonic Physiology
95B089: Reversal of Apoptosis Resistance in Malignant Rat Lymphoma Cells and Human B-Cell Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia by Butyrate, a Diet-Derived Fatty Acid
95A27: Vitamin Intervention in Smokers
86A45: Anticarcinogenicity of Dietary Flavonol Quercetin
93B43: Dietary Antioxidants and Protein Kinase C Oxidative Activation in Tumor Promotion
08A032: Metabolic Profiling of Plants for Health
98A051: Metabolism and Pharmacokinetics of IP6 In Vivo
98A075: Phytate Promotes Apoptosis in Coloncytes via Inhibition of the PI 3 Kinase/Akt Signaling Pathway
97A028: Pharmocodynamic Effects of Perillyl Alcohol in Humans
98A103: Preclinical Evaluation of the Ability of Monoterpenes to Treat Ph+ Leukemia
99A027: Diet, Oxidative DNA Damage and Breast Cancer Risk
03B043: Design and Feasibility of a Mediterranean Diet
05A021: Lycopene, Vitamin E, Selenium and Prostate Cancer
92SG03: Reversal of Ras Oncogene-Induced Cell Transformation by Dietary Terpenes
91SG04: Effect of Inositol Hexaphosphate on the Growth of Transplantable Fibrosarcoma in Mice
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
91B36: Studies on In Vivo Nitrosation
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
91A19: Fat-Fiber Interactions: Effect on Colonic Cytokinetics
89B48: Can Putative Preneoplastic Foci be Used to Evaluate Inhibitors of Colon Carcinogenesis
94B96: Induction of Carcinogen Detoxifying Enzymes by the Dietary Anticarcinogen Elagic Acid
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
89A25: Cellulose Structure and Inhibition of Colon Carcinogenesis
91SG21: Colon Carcinogenesis: Nutritional Modulation of Biomakers
87A23: Effect of Carotenoids on Mammary and Urinary Bladder Cancers
94A55: Modulation of Colon Cancer Phenotype by Short Chain Fatty Acids
96A078: Activation of a Tumor Suppressor Gene by Nutrient Derivatives
00A066: Mechanism of Cancer Prevention by Fiber
96A077: Regulation of Apoptosis in Human Colorectal Carcinoma Cells
09A002: Factors Determining the Apoptotic Response of Colorectal Carcinoma Cells to Butyrate, a Fermentation Product Derived from Dietary Fiber
03A002: Role of Wnt Signaling in Butyrate-Induced Colon Carcinoma Cell Proliferation, Differentiation and Apoptosis
95A17: Butyrate-mediated Signal Transduction in Colonocytes: Role of cAMP-dependent Protein Kinase
86B14: Bioflavonoid Inhibition of Carcinogenesis
86A25: Dietary Fiber, Bile Acids and Colon Carcinogenesis
87B62: Dietary Treatment for the Prevention of Cervix Dysplasias
83B11: Type and Amount of Dietary Fiber in Experimental Colon Cancer

In the Kitchen


  • Cherries can be classified as sweet or tart. Sweet cherries are the most popular for eating raw, although you can use them for cooking.
  • Tart cherries are commonly used for baking, such as in pies or cobblers. In the supermarket, you'll find them canned, frozen or dried.
  • When purchasing fresh, select firm, glossy, plump cherries with stems attached. The darker they are; the more ripe. Avoid shriveled or bruised fruits.


  • Refrigerate unwashed cherries for up to ten days in a plastic bag. Or to minimize bruising, spread a single layer on a shallow pan and cover with plastic wrap.
  • Check occasionally and remove any that have gone bad before they cause others to spoil.


  • For cooking, pit cherries either by hand (pull with your forefinger and thumb or push with a chopstick) or with a pitter.
  • You can poach cherries (great for sauces) by dropping them into simmering water and cooking for 1 to 3 minutes until soft. Use a 2:1 ratio cherries to water: If you have 2 cups of cherries, use 1 cup of water.
  • Dried cherries are delicious in salads and hot or cold cereal. You can also add dried cherries to baked goods like muffins and cookies to keep them moist.
  • You'll find it easier to cut dried cherries if you oil your knife or kitchen scissors beforehand.
  • Keep a bag of cherries in the freezer and add to oatmeal while it cooks, or layer with yogurt and granola for a quick breakfast.
  • Add cherry juice and whole cherries to sparkling water for a cooling summer beverage.

Cherry Chocolate Bread Pudding

photo of cherry bread pudding
  • 3/4 cup dried tart or sweet cherries
  • 3/4 cup apple juice or water
  • 8 slices whole-wheat bread
  • 1/4 cup unsweetened Dutch-processed cocoa powder
  • 1/2 cup firmly packed brown sugar
  • 1/4 tsp. salt
  • 2 1/2 cups refrigerated plain coconut milk*, divided
  • 2 large eggs
  • 3 large egg whites
  • 2 tsp. vanilla extract
  • Canola oil cooking spray
  • 1/4 cup dark chocolate chips, at least 60 percent cocoa
  • 2 Tbsp. sliced almonds

In small bowl, soak cherries in apple juice or water to plump them. Drain well, and set aside.

Stack bread slices and using serrated knife, cut off crust. Cut bread into 1/2-inch cubes, making about 7 cups.

In large mixing bowl, combine cocoa, sugar and salt. Add 1/3 cup of coconut milk, and whisk until smooth. Add remaining coconut milk, and whisk to combine well. Add eggs, egg whites and vanilla and whisk until well combined. Add cubed bread and drained cherries, mixing gently until all bread is moistened. Set mixture aside to soak for 30 to 60 minutes.

Coat 9-inch square baking dish with cooking spray. Stir mixture again to evenly distribute cherries. Spread mixture in prepared pan. Sprinkle on chocolate chips and almonds.

Bake until knife inserted in center of pudding comes out clean, 40-45 minutes. Cool on rack until just warm. Cut pudding into 12 pieces and serve. You can also serve this bread pudding cold or at room temperature. Cool completely, cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate overnight.

*This is an unsweetened refrigerated coconut milk beverage with ~50 calories per 1 cup.

Makes 12 servings.

Per serving: 176 calories, 4 g total fat (2 g saturated fat), 31 g carbohydrate,
 5 g protein, 3 g dietary fiber, 232 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.


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  2. Cherry Profile. Agricultural Marketing Resource Center, Iowa State University. Accessed 8/12.
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  4. USDA Database for Flavonoid Content, Release 2.1, 2007.  Accessed 5/11.
  5. Cherry Nutrition Report.  Cherry Marketing Institute.  Accessed 5/11.
  6. King Orchards.  Accessed from website 5/11.
  7. Shih, PH et al. Effects of anthocyanidin on the inhibition of proliferation and induction of apoptosis in human gastric adenocarcinoma cells.  Food Chem Toxicol. 2005 Oct;43(10):1557-66.
  8. Clark SS. Perillyl alcohol induces c-Myc-dependent apoptosis in Bcr/Abl-transformed leukemia cells. Oncology. 2006;70(1):13-8. 
  9. Loutrari H et al. Perillyl alcohol is an angiogenesis inhibitor. J Pharmacol Exp Ther. 2004 Nov;311(2):568-75.
  10. Traustadóttir T et al. Tart cherry juice decreases oxidative stress in healthy older men and women.  J Nutr. 2009 Oct;139(10):1896-900.
  11. Kelley DS, et al. Consumption of Bing sweet cherries lowers circulating concentrations of inflammation markers in healthy men and women.  J Nutr. 2006 Apr;136(4):981-6.
  12. Liu G, Oettel K, Bailey H, Ummersen LV, Tutsch K, Staab MJ, Horvath D, Alberti D, Arzoomanian R, Rezazadeh H, McGovern J, Robinson E, DeMets D, Wilding G.
    Phase II trial of perillyl alcohol (NSC 641066) administered daily in patients with metastatic androgen independent prostate cancer. Invest New Drugs. 2003 Aug;21(3):367-72.
  13. Stearns V, Coop A, Singh B, Gallagher A, Yamauchi H, Lieberman R, Pennanen M, Trock B, Hayes DF, Ellis MJ. A pilot surrogate end point biomarker trial of perillyl alcohol in breast neoplasia. Clin Cancer Res. 2004 Nov 15;10(22):7583-91.
  14. da Fonseca CO, Linden R, Futuro D, Gattass CR, Quirico-Santos T. Ras pathway activation in gliomas: a strategic target for intranasal administration of perillyl alcohol. Arch Immunol Ther Exp (Warsz). 2008 Jul-Aug;56(4):267-76. Epub 2008 Jul 29.
  15. da Silveira Fd, Lopes Bde A, da Fonseca CO, Quirico-Santos T, de Palmer Paixão IC, de Amorim LM. Analysis of EGF+61A>G polymorphism and EGF serum levels in Brazilian glioma patients treated with perillyl alcohol-based therapy. J Cancer Res Clin Oncol. 2012 Aug;138(8):1347-54. Epub 2012 Apr 6.
  16. da Fonseca CO, Simão M, Lins IR, Caetano RO, Futuro D, Quirico-Santos T. Efficacy of monoterpene perillyl alcohol upon survival rate of patients with recurrent glioblastoma. J Cancer Res Clin Oncol. 2011 Feb;137(2):287-93. Epub 2010 Apr 18.