BACKGROUND: Carotenoids have numerous biological properties that may underpin a role for them as chemopreventive agents. However, except for beta-carotene, little is known about how dietary carotenoids are associated with common cancers, including colon cancer. OBJECTIVE: The objective of this study was to evaluate associations between dietary alpha-carotene, beta-carotene, lycopene, lutein, zeaxanthin, and beta-cryptoxanthin and the risk of colon cancer. DESIGN: Data were collected from 1993 case subjects with first primary incident adenocarcinoma of the colon and from 2410 population-based control subjects. Dietary data were collected from a detailed diet-history questionnaire and nutrient values for dietary carotenoids were obtained from the US Department of Agriculture-Nutrition Coordinating Center carotenoid database (1998 updated version). RESULTS: Lutein was inversely associated with colon cancer in both men and women [odds ratio (OR) for upper quintile of intake relative to lowest quintile of intake: 0.83; 95% CI: 0.66, 1.04; P = 0.04 for linear trend]. The greatest inverse association was observed among subjects in whom colon cancer was diagnosed when they were young (OR: 0.66; 95% CI: 0.48, 0.92; P = 0.02 for linear trend) and among those with tumors located in the proximal segment of the colon (OR: 0.65; 95% CI: 0.51, 0.91; P < 0.01 for linear trend). The associations with other carotenoids were unremarkable. CONCLUSION: The major dietary sources of lutein in subjects with colon cancer and in control subjects were spinach, broccoli, lettuce, tomatoes, oranges and orange juice, carrots, celery, and greens. These data suggest that incorporating these foods into the diet may help reduce the risk of developing colon cancer.