Media coverage of the European study that weakens the presumed link between fruit and vegetable consumption and cancer prevention has been extensive. From the New York Times blog:

Eating Vegetables Doesn’t Stop Cancer

A major study tracking the eating habits of 478,000 Europeans suggests that consuming lots of fruits and vegetables has little if any effect on preventing cancer.

The study, published in the current issue of The Journal of the National Cancer Institute, is the latest in a series of studies to debunk the potential of vegetables for lowering cancer risk, but the results don’t mean you should push those greens off your plate.

A number of studies show that high vegetable consumption is associated with lower risk for cardiovascular disease. In addition, there is still some evidence that certain vegetables contain potent, cancer-fighting compounds. And the latest study also suggested a potentially higher anticancer benefit of eating vegetables for people who regularly drink alcohol.

As a result, campaigns urging Americans to eat more vegetables are likely to continue.

“We now have much more information from prospective studies on intake of fruits and vegetables in relation to risk of cardiovascular disease,’’ said Dr. Walter C. Willett, chairman of the department of nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health. “Thus the advice should continue, but the benefit will be primarily for heart disease and stroke.’’

One suspects that late night comedians and cynical columnists may pile on, adding their derisive comments about veggies.  I'm not sure how a study like this will resonate in the mass media and how many consumers will actually hear this story. It does point out the need for the industry to have a bigger megaphone to share its promotion message with the consuming public. That task would have been easier with a national promotion board for fresh produce, but that is water under the bridge. Here is the PBH thoughtful response to the study.

Fruits and Vegetables Have Other Health Benefits

Wilmington, Del. - Eating a diet rich in fruits and vegetables is good for many reasons, but a new study says that fruits and vegetables don't offer as much protection against cancer as once thought. A large study has found only a modest link between high intake of fruit and vegetables and reduction in overall cancer risk.

Study author Dr. Paolo Boffetta, of the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York, wrote about these findings in a study published in the April 6 online issue of the Journal of the National Cancer Institute. Boffetta's team followed nearly 500,000 European subjects in 10 countries over nine years. The data was mostly self-reported by the participants and detailed their dietary and lifestyle habits. While the participants were followed, deaths and incidents of cancer diagnoses were noted.

During the study, the participants' median intake of fruits and vegetables was 335 grams a day. The researchers looked at the effect of increasing fruit and vegetable intake on cancer prevention and found that the more fruits and vegetables you eat, the more protective the effect, but the magnitude of this effect was very weak. Those who increased their fruit and vegetable intake by 200 grams per day found that their overall cancer risk was reduced by three percent. Most of that affect was noted in women. In the end, Boffetta's team decided that the link between fruits and vegetables and cancer prevention was weak at best.

However, Boffetta cautions that this doesn't mean you should stop eating fruits and vegetables. He says there is still a great health benefit to be had from eating fruits and vegetables for a number of other reasons, such as reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease. The researchers aren't saying that fruits and vegetables have no effect on cancer risk either. They say that fruits and vegetables are likely to be protective against cancer, although that protective effect is not likely to be large.

Experts commenting on the study are quick to point out that while a two or three percent reduction in risk may not seem very significant, in public health terms it translates to thousands of people not getting cancer simply by eating more fruit and vegetables.

"The research on fruits and vegetables relating to cancer prevention HAS been weakening over the years, but at the same time the correlation has been strengthening for heart disease and weight control," said Elizabeth Pivonka, Ph.D., R.D., president and CEO of Produce for Better Health Foundation, the nonprofit entity behind the Fruits & Veggies-More Matters® national public health initiative. "That is actually in part why oversight of the 5 A Day program, renamed Fruits & Veggies-More Matters in 2007, was transferred from the National Cancer Institute to the CDC."

Pivonka says the study's suggestion that there's more work to be done researching the effects of specific fruits and vegetables on cancer risk is not much of a surprise. She adds that studying specific fruits and vegetables is where this type of research began in the first place and that there still remains good evidence of a link to cancer prevention for certain types of produce, cruciferous vegetables like cabbage, cauliflower and broccoli, for instance.

 Pivonka suggests that "Since we already know obesity increases cancer risk and that eating more fruits and vegetables in place of higher calorie foods decreases the risk of becoming obese, fruits and vegetables can be said to have a preventative effect in that manner."

 She adds that these latest study findings are no reason to cut back on the consumption of fruits and vegetables.

 "Fruits and vegetables can and do help prevent disease and promote health and the inclusion of more fruits and vegetables in the diet can help with feeling full and satisfied after a meal, help reduce calorie intake, and certainly boost overall nutrition." Pivonka says.