To which extent can optimality principles describe the operation of metabolic networks? By explicitly considering experimental errors and in silico alternate optima in flux balance analysis, we systematically evaluate the capacity of 11 objective functions combined with eight adjustable constraints to predict (13)C-determined in vivo fluxes in Escherichia coli under six environmental conditions. While no single objective describes the flux states under all conditions, we identified two sets of objectives for biologically meaningful predictions without the need for further, potentially artificial constraints. Unlimited growth on glucose in oxygen or nitrate respiring batch cultures is best described by nonlinear maximization of the ATP yield per flux unit. Under nutrient scarcity in continuous cultures, in contrast, linear maximization of the overall ATP or biomass yields achieved the highest predictive accuracy. Since these particular objectives predict the system behavior without preconditioning of the network structure, the identified optimality principles reflect, to some extent, the evolutionary selection of metabolic network regulation that realizes the various flux states.