Caring Currents

Anti-Cancer Superfoods: Do They Really Work?

Last updated: Jan 14, 2009

Blueberries on yellow #3
All Rights Reserved

The short answer to this question is -- drum roll, please -- yes. They really do. While studies are ongoing, and in many cases experts still don't know exactly how these superfoods work, there's strong evidence that certain fruits and vegetables rich in plant-based nutrients can both prevent tumors from starting and halt their growth. Here, the top foods to work into the family diet if you'd like to cut cancer risk or help those with cancer recover. And who wouldn't?

  1. Blueberries, Acai Berries, and Grapes.  The rich, dark colors of blueberries, Brazilian acai berries, and purple grapes come from phytochemicals that protect against numerous types of cancer. Most recently, researchers at the University of Florida found that the active ingredient in acai berries destroyed cancer cells when tested in cell cultures. And blueberries and muscadine grapes contain compounds that recent research shows cause cancer cells in the liver to self-destruct.  In fact, the anti-cancer properties of these berries are so strong that researchers have developing concentrated supplements and other products such as purees and concentrates.
  2. Green Tea. One of the first plant-based chemicals to be studied for its anti-cancer properties, catechins -- the chemicals in green tea -- have been known for some time to prevent and reduce recurrence of breast and other cancers. With this particular chemical, experts even know why: a chemical known as EGCG inhibits breast tumor growth,  a University of Mississippi study  shows. Just two cups a day is enough to do the trick.
  3. Tomatoes. Harvard researcher Edward Giovannucci reviewed 72 different studies published by the National Cancer Institute, and concluded that lycopene, the active chemical in tomatoes, lowered the risk of many different cancers, particularly prostate cancer, breast cancer , lung cancer and colon cancer. Subsequently, the FDA conducted a review of its own and disagreed, refusing food companies' request to label tomato products with an anti-cancer health promotion message. However, many experts believe the FDA's process was flawed and that tomatoes will be vindicated by further studies. The good news: cooking tomatoes seems to enhance the effects of lycopene, qualifying tomato-based spaghetti sauce as a nutritional powerhouse. Bring on the pasta!
  4. Broccoli and Cabbage. British researchers made headlines last year with a study that showed that men with early signs of developing prostate cancer prevented tumor growth  by eating broccoli four times a week. Other studies have shown anti-cancer benefits from eating cabbage, brussels sprouts, and other cruciferous vegetables.
  5. Garlic, Leeks and Onions. According to the National Institutes of Health, studies of people from Southern Europe who eat a diet high in garlic and onions show a direct relationship between high consumption of "allium" vegetables (all types of garlic, onions, and leeks) and reduced risk of many common cancers.

None of this is to say that an anti-cancer diet or nutritional supplements should be used in place of doctor-recommended treatments such as chemotherapy and radiation. While there are members of's cancer community like Joel MacDonald who are using nutrition to battle their disease and have interesting stories to tell, the experts in this field strongly recommend that those who've already been diagnosed with cancer use anti-cancer nutrients to bolster traditional medical cancer treatment , not to replace it .

A great resource for those interested in learning more about making dietary changes to prevent cancer or cancer recurrence is a new book, AntiCancer: A New Way of Life by David Servan-Schreiber, an MD, PhD, and professor of psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. At the age of 31, Servan-Schreiber, one of the founders of Doctors Without Borders, had a brain tumor surgically removed. After exploring the research on the connections between diet and cancer, Serban-Schreiber embarked on a series of lifestyle changes that he credits with preventing his brain cancer from recurring. 

The list above is by no means comprehensive. Please comment and share your anti-cancer nutrition and diet ideas.