The relation of antioxidant nutrients to the incidence of nuclear cataracts was investigated in a cohort of adults aged 43-84 years in the Beaver Dam Eye Study (Beaver Dam, Wisconsin). Nuclear opacity was assessed on a five-point ordinal scale using lens photographs taken at baseline (1988-1990) and at follow-up (1993-1995). Of the 1,354 persons eligible, 246 developed a nuclear cataract (level 4 or 5 opacity) in at least one eye. Antioxidant intakes were assessed using a food frequency questionnaire administered at baseline for time points corresponding to intake during the year preceding baseline and 10 years before baseline (the distant past). Lutein-zeaxanthin was the only carotenoid, out of five examined, that was associated with nuclear cataracts. Persons in the highest quintile of lutein intake in the distant past were half as likely to have an incident cataract as persons in the lowest quintile of intake (95% confidence interval 0.3-0.8). In the overall group, nuclear cataracts were not significantly related to intake of vitamin C or vitamin E. However, vitamins C and E were inversely associated with opacities in persons who had some other risk factors for cataracts. While results of this short term follow-up study are consistent with a possible protective influence of lutein and vitamins E and C on the development of nuclear cataracts, the evidence in the present study provides weak support for these associations.