Colostrum, the initial postpartum secretion of the breast, ordinarily has a distinct yellow color due to carotenoids of its fat globules. This pigmentation progressively diminishes as milk production increases during the first week of lactation. Identity of these carotenoids was investigated by means of thin-layer chromatography, high performance liquid chromatography and spectral analysis. Alpha- and beta-carotene, lycopene and beta-cryptoxanthin were revealed as major chromogens. A component corresponding to lutein and/or zeaxanthin was also detected by both chromatographic techniques. Extracts of 23 saponified colostrum samples from 10 donors revealed considerable variation in total carotenoid concentration (0.34-7.57 micrograms/ml of colostrum). Multiparous mothers had greater mean colostrum carotenoid concentrations than did the primiparae, 2.18 +/- 1.94 vs 1.14 +/- 1.32 micrograms/ml, respectively. Seven of the eight primiparous donors' samples had little or no yellow color. These findings imply a difference in carotenoid transport by breasts that have lactated as compared to those that have not. The interrelation of carotenoids, lactation and breast cancer is discussed.