Throw out your broccoli, chuck out your tomatoes…

Shall we? The vegetable tide is turning. For those of us forcing vegetables into our children in the belief that they are essential to health, the news, from the Journal of the National Cancer Institute: Fruit and Vegetable Intake and Overall Cancer Risk in the European Prospective Investigation Into Cancer and Nutrition reporting a very large study, is that vegetables don’t cut the risk of cancer in the way some analyses had found: Fruit, vegetables, and cancer prevention: a review of the epidemiological evidence

All those UK Department of Health ’5 a day’ campaigns, and attempts to wean us off chocolate bars and onto bananas may have wasted their efforts.

The NCI study examined almost half a million Europeans for over 7 years. The found a small protective effect  against cancer from a high fruit and vegetable intake – but of about a four per cent reduction. The rates of cancer were 7.1 per 1000 for women and 7.9 per 1000 for men. So the reduction overall is not large.

This is a monster of a study, in relative terms – many smaller retrospective analyses have been done and shown the opposite – many came out during the 90s saying that a 50% reduction in cancer would be possible through eating lots of vegetables.

But we can’t fully dismiss the theory that fruit and veg are good for health. The study found that heavy drinkers had an extra benefit from this kind of diet – but only a benefit in reducing cancers caused by alcohol.

Further, evidence remains - Fruit and Vegetable Consumption and Risk of Coronary Heart Disease: A Meta-Analysis of Cohort Studies – that risk of cardiovascular disease – strokes, heart attacks – is reduced by a veg-rich diet. The other issue is that of the role of fruit and vegetables in preventing or reducing obesity: we probably shouldn’t wave good bye to the fresh produce aisle just yet.

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Margaret McCartney is a Glasgow-based GP and FT Weekend columnist. She started writing for the Life and Arts section in 2005 and moved to the magazine in 2008. She also has her own blog: www.margaretmccartney.com/blog

Clive Cookson has been a science journalist for the whole of his working life. He joined the FT in 1987. Clive, the FT's science editor, picks out the research that everyone should know about. He also discusses key policy issues, from R&D funding to science education.

Andrew Jack is pharmaceuticals correspondent, covering the industry and public health issues. He has been a journalist with the FT for 19 years, based in London, Paris and Moscow

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