Fibre is good for us after all controversial new research published in The Lancet reveals.

The biggest study ever undertaken into European eating habits says that people can almost halve their risk of bowel cancer by eating twice as many cereals, fruits and vegetables.

The investigation – funded by a consortium including Cancer Research UK, the Medical Research Council (MRC) and the European Commission – contradicts earlier but smaller studies in the US, Finland and Sweden which showed no link between bowel cancer prevention and fibre consumption.

Scientists studied the diets of more than half a million people in 10 European countries and found that people who ate the most fibre rich food had the lowest incidence of bowel cancer while those with least fibre in their diets had the most cases of the disease.

Professors Nick Day and Sheila Bingham led the study for Cancer Research UK and the MRC. It was co-ordinated by Dr Elio Riboli of the International Agency for Research on Cancer.

Prof Day says: “It became clear that the amount of dietary fibre in food was inversely related to bowel cancer incidence. Our report suggests that if people with a low level of fibre in their diet1 were to double their intake that the risk of bowel cancer could be reduced by 40 per cent.

Prof Bingham, of the MRC’s Dunn Human Nutrition Unit in Cambridge, says: “It is important for people to be aware that fibre supplements or special foods with added fibre were not studied and it should not be assumed that they have the same protective effect as foods that are naturally rich in fibre such as cereals, vegetables and fruit.”

Dr Elio Riboli adds: “By studying so many different populations with different diets we were able to get a much more accurate picture of how different kinds of foods contributing fibre to our usual diet relate to the incidence of bowel cancer.”

The results are part of the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition (EPIC) which is an ongoing study into the dietary habits, lifestyle and genetic characteristics of more than 500,000 Europeans.

People aged between 25 and 70 were asked to fill in questionnaires relating to food and dietary habits. Information was collated at 22 centres in the UK, Denmark, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Spain and Sweden.

The report showed how different populations had varying main sources of fibre. For example cereals were the main source in the Netherlands, Germany, Sweden and Denmark. Vegetables were the main source of fibre in France and the UK, while it was fruit in Italy and Spain.

It also highlighted that people questioned in an earlier American study consumed less fibre than those in the EPIC study, which may explain why no direct correlation between fibre and bowel cancer risk was reported at that time.

Professor Robert Souhami, Cancer Research UK’s Director of Clinical Research, says: “The public can place great reliance on the results of such a large survey which has taken place in so many countries with widely differing levels of fibre in their diet. The results of the EPIC study underline the importance of including plenty of fibre in our daily diet to reduce the risk of bowel cancer.”


  1. A diet low in fibre means fewer than five daily portions of fruit and vegetables which is the government’s recommended amount. Cereals are also an important source of fibre and include bread, especially wholemeal, rice and pasta.


Bowel cancer is the second highest cause of cancer death in the UK responsible for 16,170 deaths each year.

The EPIC study was initiated in 1993 with the collection of data and blood samples from healthy volunteers. Investigators are now following up the study subjects to investigate the links between cancer risk and diet.

The Medical Research Council (MRC) is a national organisation funded by the UK tax-payer. Its business is medical research aimed at improving human health; everyone stands to benefit from the outputs. The research it supports and the scientists it trains meet the needs of the health services, the pharmaceutical and other health-related industries and the academic world. MRC has funded work which has led to some of the most significant discoveries and achievements in medicine in the UK. About half of the MRC’s expenditure of £413 million is invested in over 50 of its Institutes and Units, where it employs its own research staff. The remaining half goes in the form of grant support and training awards to individuals and teams in universities and medical schools. Fifty years after the momentous discovery of the structure of DNA, which was the culmination of research by Medical Research Council scientists, Maurice Wilkins and Rosalind Franklin in London, and James Watson and Francis Crick in Cambridge, the world celebrates one of the most significant landmarks of 20th century science.