High intakes of fruit and vegetables may reduce the risk of cancer at several sites. Evidence has been derived mainly from case–control studies. We reviewed the relationship between consumption of vegetables and fruit and the risk of several common cancers in a network of Italian and Swiss case–control studies including over 10 000 cases of fourteen different cancers and about 17 000 controls. Data were suggestive of a protective role of vegetable intake on the risk of several common epithelial cancers. OR for the highest compared with the lowest levels of consumption ranged from 0·2 (larynx, oral cavity and pharynx) to 0·9 (prostate). Inverse associations were found for both raw and cooked vegetables, although for upper digestive tract cancers the former were somewhat stronger. Similar inverse associations were found for cruciferous vegetables. Frequent consumption of allium vegetables was also associated with reduced risk of several cancers. Fruit was a favourable correlate of the risk of several cancers, particularly of the upper digestive tract, with associations generally weaker than those reported for vegetables. A reduced risk of cancers of the digestive tract and larynx was found for high consumption of citrus fruit. Suggestive protections against several forms of cancer, mainly digestive tract cancers, were found for high consumption of apples and tomatoes. High intakes of fibres, flavonoids and proanthocyanidins were inversely related to various forms of cancer. In conclusion, data from our series of case–control studies suggested a favourable role of high intakes of fruit and vegetables in the risk of many common cancers, particularly of the digestive tract. This adds evidence to the indication that aspects of the Mediterranean diet may have a favourable impact not only on CVD, but also on several common (epithelial) cancers, particularly of the digestive tract.