Serum levels of retinol, beta-carotene, ascorbic acid, alpha-tocopherol, selenium, ferritin, copper, and zinc were assayed for approximately 600 adults aged 35 to 64 with pre-cancerous gastric lesions in an area of China with one of the world's highest rates of stomach cancer. Previous studies have shown that the cancers generally are preceded by chronic atropic gastritis (CAG), intestinal metaplasia (IM) and dysplasia. Concentrations of beta-carotene and ascorbic acid were significantly lower among individuals with IM than among those whose most severe lesion was superficial gastritis or CAG. The associations with IM for these nutrients were strong and independent. In combination, the odds of CAG progressing to IM were only 1/6 as high among those with upper tertile levels of beta-carotene and ascorbic acid as among those with lower tertile levels of both nutrients. The serum levels of beta-carotene and ascorbic acid were similar for individuals having IM with or without accompanying dysplasia. Risk of IM was also somewhat increased among those with low serum ferritin, but no significant effects were observed in multivariate analyses for the other nutrients assayed. The findings point to a major influence of specific nutrient deficits in the mechanisms of gastric carcinogenesis in this high-risk area.