Plants typically respond to environmental stresses by inducing antioxidants as a defense mechanism. As a number of these are also phytochemicals with health-promoting qualities in the human diet, we have used mild environmental stresses to enhance the phytochemical content of lettuce, a common leafy vegetable. Five-week-old lettuce (Lactuca sativa L.) plants grown in growth chambers were exposed to mild stresses such as heat shock (40 degrees C for 10 min), chilling (4 degrees C for 1d) or high light intensity (800 micromolm(-2)s(-1) for 1d). In response to these stresses, there was a two to threefold increase in the total phenolic content and a significant increase in the antioxidant capacity. The concentrations of two major phenolic compounds in lettuce, chicoric acid and chlorogenic acid, increased significantly in response to all the stresses. Quercetin-3-O-glucoside and luteolin-7-O-glucoside were not detected in the control plants, but showed marked accumulations following the stress treatments. The results suggest that certain phenolic compounds can be induced in lettuce by environmental stresses. Of all the stress treatments, high light produced the greatest accumulation of phenolic compounds, especially following the stress treatments during the recovery. In addition, key genes such as phenylalanine ammonia-lyase (PAL), l-galactose dehydrogenase (l-GalDH), and gamma-tocopherol methyltransferase (gamma-TMT) involved in the biosynthesis of phenolic compounds, ascorbic acid, and alpha-tocopherol, respectively, were rapidly activated by chilling stress while heat shock and high light did not appear to have an effect on the expression of PAL and gamma-TMT. However, l-GalDH was consistently activated in response to all the stresses. The results also show that these mild environmental stresses had no adverse effects on the overall growth of lettuce, suggesting that it is possible to use mild environmental stresses to successfully improve the phytochemical content and hence the health-promoting quality of lettuce with little or no adverse effect on its growth or yield.