The present study tested the hypothesis that inadequate Zn intake might be responsible for failure to thrive and impaired catch-up growth in young rural Gambian children, and that Zn supplements might be beneficial. Gambian children might be deprived of Zn because of its poor availability from their predominantly plant-based diet. Rural Gambian children (110; fifty boys, sixty girls) aged between 0.57 and 2.30 years were divided into two matched groups, one to receive 70 mg Zn twice weekly for 1.25 years, and the other a placebo. Growth and mid-upper-arm circumference were measured at weekly intervals throughout the study and illnesses were monitored. Capillary blood and urine samples were collected at 0, 2 and 8 weeks. Body weights and arm circumferences showed a linear increase, plus a seasonal effect (rainy season faltering). For body weight there was no significant overall effect of the supplement. For arm circumference, a very small (2%) but significant (P < 0.01) difference favoured the supplemented group. Plasma thymulin was much lower at the first clinic than at the second and third clinics, and in vitro Zn stimulation was greater at the first clinic. There was, however, no effect of Zn in vivo. Likewise, Zn did not significantly benefit T-cell numbers or ratios, secretory IgA in urine, circulating hormone levels or biochemical indices of Zn status. One index of intestinal permeability, i.e. lactulose: creatinine, was improved (P < 0.02) by the supplement, but the lactulose: mannitol value was not; this requires further investigation. Dietary Zn deficiency is, thus, unlikely to be of major overall importance for rural Gambian children's ability to thrive, and blanket Zn supplementation is not justified. There may, however, be vulnerable sub-groups who would benefit from Zn supplements.