Increasing epidemiological evidence supports the view that dietary flavonoids have protective roles in oral diseases, including cancer. However, the dietary forms of flavonoids, the flavonoid glycosides, must first be hydrolyzed to the aglycones, which is thought to occur mainly in the intestine. In the present study we tested whether this hydrolytic activity occurs in the oral cavity. Saliva was collected from human subjects, incubated with flavonoid glycosides, and analyzed for aglycone formation by HPLC. When quercetin 4'-glucoside or genistein 7-glucoside was incubated with human saliva, hydrolysis to quercetin and genistein, respectively, was detected within minutes. Studies of additional flavonoid glycosides demonstrated that glucose conjugates were rapidly hydrolyzed, but not conjugates with other sugars, i.e., rutin, quercitrin, and naringin. In a limited study of 17 subjects, the interindividual variability in the hydrolysis of genistein 7-glucoside was >20-fold. This supports the contention that salivary hydrolysis of certain flavonoid glucosides may be important in some individuals but not in others. Support for a bacterial contribution to this hydrolysis was obtained from the inhibitory effect of antibacterials in vivo and in vitro and from experiments with subcultured oral bacterial colonies. However, cytosol isolated from oral epithelial cells was also capable of effective hydrolysis. Dietary flavonoid glucosides may thus be hydrolyzed in the oral cavity by both bacteria and shedded epithelial cells to deliver the biologically active aglycones at the surface of the epithelial cells. The aglycones quercetin and genistein both potently inhibited proliferation of oral cancer cells. The large interindividual variability in this hydrolytic activity may be a factor that should be taken into consideration in future studies.