International variations in cancer rates have been attributed, at least in part, to differences in dietary intake. Recently, it has been suggested that consumption of soyfoods may contribute to the relatively low rates of breast, colon, and prostate cancers in countries such as China and Japan. Soybeans contain a number of anticarcinogens, and a recent National Cancer Institute workshop recommended that the role of soyfoods in cancer prevention be investigated. In this review, the hypothesis that soy intake reduces cancer risk is considered by examining relevant in vitro, animal, and epidemiological data. Soybeans are a unique dietary source of the isoflavone genistein, which possesses weak estrogenic activity and has been shown to act in animal models as an antiestrogen. Genistein is also a specific inhibitor of protein tyrosine kinases; it also inhibits DNA topoisomerases and other critical enzymes involved in signal transduction. In vitro, genistein suppresses the growth of a wide range of cancer cells, with IC50 values ranging from 5 to 40 microM (1-10 micrograms/ml). Of the 26 animal studies of experimental carcinogenesis in which diets containing soy or soybean isoflavones were employed, 17 (65%) reported protective effects. No studies reported soy intake increased tumor development. The epidemiological data are also inconsistent, although consumption of nonfermented soy products, such as soymilk and tofu, tended to be either protective or not associated with cancer risk; however, no consistent pattern was evident with the fermented soy products, such as miso. Protective effects were observed for both hormone- and nonhormone-related cancers. While a definitive statement that soy reduces cancer risk cannot be made at this time, there is sufficient evidence of a protective effect to warrant continued investigation.