Are There Cancer Fighting Foods? | The History Kitchen | PBS Food

Are There Cancer Fighting Foods?

Cancer Fighting Foods

We are what we eat. Though we may not give it much thought on a day-to-day basis, the foods we put into our bodies have a huge effect on our overall health. In recent years, more attention has been paid to nutrition as a means to help prevent illness, and in some cases to support healing. Though it might seem tempting to dismiss diets like gluten free, paleo, macrobiotic and raw as mere fads, they have provided physical relief and supported healing for many individuals. Every body is different, and it can take years of trial and error to find the foods that best suit you as an individual. In the case of a major illness like cancer, there is no silver bullet or magical cure that food can provide. However, a healthy diet is a vitally important part of any healing process. Certain foods have proven nutritional benefits that may help support healing in the fight against cancer.

In our lifetime, most of us will be touched by cancer in some way. Whether we experience it personally or alongside a loved one, this is a battle we are all vested in winning. Food can be looked at as one important part of a comprehensive plan to fight back against this disease. I have compiled this list of foods to share their healing benefits, with a focus on their historical medicinal use. Because each body is unique and every illness has its own challenges, a nutritional plan to support the healing process should be carefully planned in coordination with a physician.


Ancient Greek Olympic athletes ate raw garlic to boost their strength and stamina. Long seen as a curative remedy, garlic has been utilized as a natural medicine throughout history, for epidemics ranging from typhus to cholera to dysentery. It’s a great source of antioxidants and it also has anti-inflammatory properties. Studies have shown that eating garlic may help to lower risk of certain cancers; it has also been shown to lower blood pressure and cholesterol. Some substances found in garlic are believed to slow the growth of cancer cells, particularly in the lungs and breasts. A study in San Francisco determined that the risk of pancreatic cancer was significantly lower, around 54 percent, in folks who consumed garlic regularly as opposed to those who ate it occasionally. I’d say those odds are worth a bit of bad breath.


Turmeric has been used medicinally for over 4,500 years, but only recently has it attracted attention for its natural healing properties. Around 500 BCE it emerged as an important part of Ayurveda, an ancient Indian system of natural healing that is still practiced today. Among other things, inhaling fumes from burning turmeric was said to alleviate congestion, turmeric juice helped to heal wounds and bruises, and turmeric paste was applied to all sorts of skin conditions – from smallpox and chicken pox to blemishes and shingles. Curcumin, the healing substance that supplies turmeric’s vibrant color and powerful antioxidant advantages, has been shown to protect healthy cells, particularly those found in the colon, from cancer-causing agents. A 2011 study at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center discovered curcumin’s unique ability to differentiate between cancer cells and healthy cells. Furthermore, it was able to create cell death, known as apoptosis, in cancerous cells while boosting the health of normal cells. Combining turmeric with black pepper may amplify the nutritional benefits. More on turmeric here, including several recipes to try.


Tomatoes originated in South America; the earliest varieties were small and yellow. The Aztecs of Central America were the first to consume the fleshy fruit and often combined them with peppers to make an early form of salsa. Tomatoes arrived in Spain during the early 1500s and soon after they made their way to Italy. Italians immediately noticed a resemblance to the psychotropic mandrake and belladonna plants and deemed tomatoes a toxic food. This misconception led to tomatoes being used as a mere ornamental plant for some time. Generations of Europeans missed out on tomatoes as a food item. It took over 100 years for the tomato to first appear in an Italian cookbook, and it was not taken seriously as food item until the mid 1800s. More than just a tasty fruit, tomatoes contain lycopene, a powerful antioxidant. Recent studies suggest that lycopene may slow the development of prostate cancer by directly disturbing the enzymes that cause cell tissue growth. Some evidence has shown that the body absorbs lycopene more effectively through processed tomato foods such as sauces, pasteurized tomato soups and ketchup. Adding oil to heated and crushed tomato dishes can also help with lycopene’s absorption into the bloodstream.

Fermented Cabbage

Cabbage was first cultivated over 6,000 years ago. Despite its humble reputation as a cruciferous vegetable, it has appeared in Greek mythology and medieval literature as a symbol of wisdom. While most cruciferous vegetables have cancer-fighting properties, cabbage is unique in that it is most often consumed in the form of sauerkraut. The production of enzymes, vitamins and probiotics created through fermentation aid the body in digestion. Evidence suggests that certain probiotic strains contribute to the microbial balance in your digestive system, which reduces inflammation and supports the immune system.


Every time I read about the health benefits of chocolate, I get happy. Our history with chocolate stretches all the way back to Pre-Columbian times, when the Maya and Olmec civilizations discovered a way to extract chocolate’s rich and complex flavor through fermentation and roasting. Kings and nobles indulged in rich and spicy drinks made from cacao, cornmeal and chilies. For a while now we’ve been hearing that dark chocolate is good for us (in moderation, of course). It has only very recently been studied for possible cancer-fighting properties. Scientists have observed that cocoa contains proanthocyanidins (also known as condensed tannins) that may help to slow the development of certain cancers, particularly those found in the lungs. Further studies are needed to confirm just how much potential chocolate has as a cancer fighter, but so far lab results are looking positive. Note that certain varieties of chocolate have recently been flagged for containing lead and cadmium, so choose your chocolate carefully.

These are just a few of the natural foods that are being studied in the fight against cancer. It’s important to keep in mind that in the medical community, discoveries happen all the time and prevailing wisdom can change. Likewise, each body is different and the foods that support one person’s healing might not be as helpful to another. It’s always best to seek the help of a physician in creating a comprehensive nutritional plan.

If you’re in search of dishes that incorporate some of these formidable nourishing foods, check out the recipes below.


Toum recipe

Toum Recipe – Middle Eastern Garlic Sauce

Vegan Lentil Cauliflower Tacos recipe

Vegan Lentil Cauliflower Tacos Recipe

Roasted Tomato Sauce recipe

Roasted Tomato Sauce Recipe

How to Ferment Cabbage and Make Sauerkraut

How to Ferment Cabbage and Make Sauerkraut

Dark Chocolate Fruit Candies recipe

Dark Chocolate Fruit Candies Recipe

Research Sources

Béliveau, Richard, and Denis Gingras. Foods to Fight Cancer: Essential Foods to Help Prevent Cancer. New York: DK Pub., 2007. Print.

Davidson, Alan. The Oxford Companion to Food. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1999. Print.

Garlic and Cancer Prevention. National Cancer Institute at the National Institutes of Health. Web. March 31 2015.

Madison, Deborah. Preserving Food without Freezing or Canning: Traditional Techniques Using Salt, Oil, Sugar, Alcohol, Vinegar, Drying, Cold Storage, and Lactic Fermentation. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Pub., 2007. Print.

O’Leary, Bill. How much lead is in your chocolate? Washington Post, Feb. 11 2015. Web.

Petrovska, Biljana Bauer and Cekovska, Svetlana (2010). Extracts from the history and medicinal properties of garlic. Pharmacognosy Review, US National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health. Web, March 31 2015.

Varona, Verne. Nature’s Cancer-fighting Foods: Prevent and Reverse the Most Common Forms of Cancer Using the Proven Power of Great Food and Easy Recipes. Paramus, NJ: Reward, 2001. Print.

Meet the Author

Tori Avey is a food writer, recipe developer, and the creator of She explores the story behind the food – why we eat what we eat, how the foods of different cultures have evolved, and how yesterday’s food can inspire us in the kitchen today. Tori’s food writing and photography have appeared on the websites of CNN, Bon Appetit, Zabar’s, Williams-Sonoma, Yahoo Shine, LA Weekly and The Huffington Post. Follow Tori on Facebook: Tori Avey, Twitter: @toriavey, or Google+.

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