Results of kinetic and pharmacokinetic studies have suggested that dietary carnitine is not totally absorbed and is in part degraded in the gastrointestinal tract of humans. To determine the metabolic fate of dietary carnitine in humans, we administered orally a tracer dose of [methyl-3H]L-carnitine with a meal to subjects who had been adapted to a low-carnitine diet or a high-carnitine diet. Urinary and fecal excretion of radiolabeled carnitine and metabolites was monitored for 5 to 11 d following administration of the test dose. Total radioactive metabolites excreted ranged from 13 to 34% (low carnitine diet) and 27 to 46% (high carnitine diet) of the ingested tracer. Major metabolites found were [3H]trimethylamine N-oxide (8 to 39% of the administered dose; excreted primarily in urine) and [3H]gamma-butyrobetaine (0.09 to 8% of the administered dose; excreted primarily in feces). Urinary excretion of total carnitine was 42 to 95% (high carnitine diet) and 190 to 364% (low carnitine diet) of intake. These results indicate that oral carnitine is 54 to 87% bioavailable from normal Western diets; the percentage of intake absorbed is related to the quantity ingested.