Although many data are available concerning anticarcinogenic effects of industrial conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), few studies have reported the antitumour properties of CLA mixtures originating from ruminant products. The aim of the present study was to investigate the in vitro antiproliferative effects of beef CLA mixtures on breast, lung, colon, melanoma and ovarian human cancer cell lines. For this purpose, four fatty acid (FA) extracts prepared from beef lipid and varying in their CLA composition, their corresponding purified CLA-enriched fractions, and mixtures of pure synthetic CLA, the composition of which reproduced that of the four selected beef samples, were tested on cancer cell lines. Cancer cells were exposed for 48 h to medium containing 100 microm-FA and their proliferation was determined by quantifying cellular DNA content (Hoechst 33342 dye). Compared with cells incubated without FA, the number of cancer cells was reduced from 25 to 67 % (P<0.0001) following FA treatment. Antiproliferative effects of CLA mixtures varied in magnitude according to the source of FA, the CLA composition and the cell lines. CLA mixtures naturally present in beef inhibited the proliferation of human cancer cell lines, a high content in cis-trans isomers allowing the most important antiproliferative effect. Beef total FA exhibited a greater growth-inhibitory activity than their corresponding CLA-enriched fractions. These results suggested that either beef FA other than beef CLA could possess antiproliferative properties and/or the existence of complementary effects of non-conjugated FA and CLA, which could favour the antiproliferative properties of beef total FA.