One theory of the pathogenesis of IDDM proposes that exposure to cow's milk proteins triggers the disease in genetically susceptible individuals. We tested this hypothesis in the BB/Wor rat model of human IDDM. Diabetes-prone (DP) BB/Wor rats spontaneously develop IDDM. Coisogenic diabetes-resistant (DR) BB/Wor rats do not develop diabetes spontaneously, but IDDM can readily be induced by treatment with polyinosinic:polycytidylic acid and depletion of RT6+ T-cells. Pregnant BB/Wor rats were fed one of four experimental diets or a standard Purina commercial rat chow (5010) that was certified to be free of cow's milk protein. Offspring were maintained on the maternal diet after weaning. DP-BB/Wor rats, fed either of two experimental diets based on hydrolyzed casein and free of intact milk protein (Nutramigen or D11236), developed diabetes at only half the rate of animals fed Purina 5010 chow. Neither the addition of bovine serum albumin (BSA) to Nutramigen nor the substitution of total milk protein for the hydrolyzed casein in the D11236 diet increased the frequency of spontaneous diabetes. In contrast, there was no relationship between diet and susceptibility of DR-BB/Wor rats to IDDM induction. However, the methods used to induce IDDM in DR-BB/Wor animals were found to induce antibodies against BSA. We conclude the following: 1) Dietary modification can reduce spontaneous IDDM expression in DP-BB/Wor rats, but the agent of protection is not elimination of cow's milk protein. 2) The addition of BSA or intact milk protein does not abrogate the effectiveness of a protective diet. 3) The genetic susceptibility of the DR-BB/Wor rat to autoimmune diabetes is unaffected by any of the tested diets, but a role of anti-BSA-like autoreactivity in IDDM expression cannot be excluded.