Oxidative modification of LDL is believed to be a crucial step in atherosclerosis. Thus, antioxidant vitamins may have a role in the prevention of coronary disease. We examined the cross-sectional association of serum vitamin levels, the susceptibility of LDL to hemin-induced oxidation (lag phase to conjugated diene formation), and the malondialdehyde-LDL (MDA-LDL) to native LDL radioactivity binding ratio with carotid intima-media thickness (IMT), a measure of asymptomatic early atherosclerosis. The participants in this observational study were 231 asymptomatic age-, sex-, race-, and field center-matched case-control pairs selected from the Atherosclerosis Risk in Communities (ARIC) study cohort on the basis of B-mode carotid artery ultrasonograms obtained from 1986 through 1989. Cases exceeded the 90th percentile of IMT, and control subjects were below the 75th percentile of IMT for all arterial segments. Biochemical analyses were performed on fasting frozen (-70 degrees C) serum specimens collected from 1990 through 1992. In conditional logistic regression adjusting for age, blood storage time, total cholesterol, and log-triglyceride concentrations, serum beta-cryptoxanthin and lutein plus zeaxanthin levels were inversely related to the extent of atherosclerosis (odds ratio [OR] per 1-SD increase: 0.75, 95% confidence interval [CI]: 0.59-0.94; and OR per 1-SD increase: 0.76, 95% CI: 0.59-0.95, respectively). Increases in alpha-carotene and lycopene were associated with nonsignificantly lower odds of being a case, whereas beta-carotene, retinol, and alpha-tocopherol were unrelated to IMT. Although not reaching statistical significance, the lag phase and autoantibodies against MDA-LDL were positively associated with asymptomatic atherosclerosis. After adjustment for potential confounders, only the inverse association of lutein plus zeaxanthin with asymptomatic atherosclerosis was maintained. This study supports a modest inverse association between circulating levels of some carotenoids, particularly lutein plus zeaxanthin, and carotid IMT. These findings suggest that these carotenoid compounds (regarded as biomarkers of fruit and vegetable intake) may be important in early stages of atherosclerosis.