We compare two commonly used diagnostic approaches, one relying on plasma bicarbonate concentration and "anion gap," the other on "base excess," with a third method based on physicochemical principles, for their value in detecting complex metabolic acid-base disturbances. We analyzed arterial blood samples from 152 patients and nine normal subjects for pH, PCO(2), and concentrations of plasma electrolytes and proteins. Ninety-six percent of the patients had serum albumin concentration < or = 3 SD below the mean of the control subjects. In about one-sixth of the patients, base excess and plasma bicarbonate were normal. In a great majority of these apparently normal samples, the third method detected simultaneous presence of acidifying and alkalinizing disturbances, many of them grave. The almost ubiquitous hypoalbuminemia confounded the interpretation of acid-base data when the customary approaches were applied. Base excess missed serious acid-base abnormalities in about one-sixth of the patients; this method fails when the plasma concentrations of the nonbicarbonate buffers (mainly albumin) are abnormal. Anion gap detected a hidden "gap acidosis" in only 31% of those samples with normal plasma bicarbonate in which such acidosis was diagnosed by the third method; when adjusted for hypoalbuminemia, it reliably detected the hidden abnormal anions. The proposed third method identifies and quantifies individual components of complex acid-base abnormalities and provides insights in their pathogenesis.