Phyto-oestrogens have emerged from their esoteric role in animal husbandry following the hypothesis that the human Western diet is relatively deficient in these substances compared with societies where large amounts of plant foods and legumes are eaten. Evidence is beginning to accrue that they may begin to offer protection against a wide range of human conditions, including breast, bowel, prostate and other cancers, cardiovascular disease, brain function, alcohol abuse, osteoporosis and menopausal symptoms. Of the two main classes of these weak oestrogens, the isoflavones are under intensive investigation due to their high levels in soyabean. Like the 'anti-oestrogen' Tamoxifen, these seem to have oestrogenic effects in human subjects in the cardiovascular system and bone. Although previously only available from food, isoflavones are now being marketed in health-food supplements or drinks, and tablets may soon be available over the counter as 'natural' hormone-replacement therapy. In cancer, anti-oestrogenic effects are thought to be important, although genistein especially has been shown to induce wide-ranging anti-cancer effects in cell lines independent of any hormone-related influence. There are few indications of harmful effects at present, although possible proliferative effects have been reported. In infants, the effects of high levels in soya milk formulas are uncertain. The second group, lignans, have been less investigated despite their known antioestrogenic effects and more widespread occurrence in foods. Investigation of the possible benefits of phyto-oestrogens is hampered by lack of analytical standards and, hence, inadequate methods for the measurement of low levels in most foods. This problem may prove to be a major dilemma for regulatory authorities, clinicians and others wishing to advise the general public on whether these compounds really do have the health benefits attributed to them.