Age-related macular degeneration (ARMD) is inversely associated with the accumulation of lutein + zeaxanthin in the macula, but higher lutein intakes are inconsistently related to reduced risk of ARMD in epidemiologic studies. Resolution of efficacy awaits clinical trials designed with knowledge of lutein supplement pharmacokinetics. Lutein bioavailability was determined for lutein diester and unesterified lutein formulations as they might be incorporated into dietary supplements. Healthy subjects (n = 18) consumed a single dose of each formulation (either 0.5 or 0.67 micro mol lutein/kg body, 10 and 8 subjects, respectively) in random order, and the appearance of free lutein + zeaxanthin was measured in serum from 0 to 408 h. Areas under the serum concentration x time curves (AUC), as a measure of bioavailability, were independent of gender, body mass index and lutein dose. The lutein diester formulation was 61.6% more bioavailable than the unesterified lutein formulation with higher mean AUC, maximum serum concentration and ascending slope (P < 0.05). The AUC was greater in 14 of 18 subjects when they consumed the lutein diester formulation. Comparison with data from previous studies suggested that dissolution was a greater limitation to bioavailability than lutein ester hydrolysis because an oil-solubilized unesterified lutein preparation, given at 0.5 micro mol/kg body, resulted in greater mean peak concentrations and AUC compared with either the unesterified or lutein diester formulations used in our study. In conclusion, the lutein diester formulation poses no impediment to lutein bioavailability at the doses tested, but formulation dissolution is an important factor in lutein bioavailability and should be evaluated before a supplement and dose are selected for use in clinical trials.