OBJECTIVES: We sought to examine the association between the metabolic syndrome (MetS) (defined both by the 2001 National Cholesterol Educational Program Adult Treatment Panel III [ATP-III] definition and the American Heart Association/National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute [AHA/NHLBI] revision incorporating the lower threshold for impaired fasting glucose [IFG]) and early-onset coronary artery disease (CAD). BACKGROUND: The impact of MetS on premature CAD has not been studied extensively. Lowering the threshold to define the IFG component (from 110 to 100 mg/dl) and the value of the syndrome as a whole versus its individual components are subjects of intense debate. METHODS: We performed a case-control study with 393 early-onset CAD subjects (acute myocardial infarction, angina with > or =50% stenosis, or coronary revascularization) in men under age 46 years or women under age 56 years and 393 control subjects individually matched for gender, age, and race/ethnicity. RESULTS: By conditional logistic regression, presence of ATP-III MetS without diabetes (adjusted odds ratio [adj-OR] 4.9; 95% confidence interval [CI] 3.4 to 8.0) and with diabetes (adj-OR 8.0, 95% CI 4.39 to 14.6) was a strong independent determinant of early-onset CAD. Using the AHA/NHLBI revision, these ORs became slightly stronger. However, neither definition of MetS remained significantly associated with early-onset CAD in multivariate models adjusting for individual components. CONCLUSIONS: The presence of MetS imparts a high risk of early-onset clinical CAD, but the prognostic information associated with the syndrome is not greater than the sum of its parts.