The role of specific food groups and diet variety on the risk of oral and pharyngeal cancer has been considered using data from a case-control study conducted between 1992 and 1997 in the Swiss Canton of Vaud. Cases were 156 patients (126 males, 30 females) aged under 75 (median age 56) years with incident, histologically confirmed cancer of the oral cavity and pharynx, and controls were 284 subjects (246 males, 38 females, median age 57 years), admitted to the same university hospital for a wide spectrum of acute, non-neoplastic conditions unrelated to tobacco and alcohol consumption or to long-term modification of diet. After allowance for education, alcohol, tobacco and total energy intake, significant trends of increasing risk with more frequent intake emerged for eggs (OR = 2.3 for the highest tertile), red meat (OR = 2.1) and pork and processed meat (OR = 3.2). Inverse trends in risk were observed for milk (OR = 0.4 for the highest tertile), fish (OR = 0.5), raw vegetables (OR = 0.3), cooked vegetables (OR = 0.1), citrus fruit (OR = 0.4) and other fruits (OR = 0.2). The addition of a serving per day of fruit or vegetables was associated with an about 50% reduction in oral cancer risk. The most favourable diet for oral cancer risk is therefore given by infrequent consumption of red and processed meat and eggs and, most of all, frequent vegetable and fruit intake. Diet diversity was inversely related to oral and pharyngeal cancer: ORs were 0.35 for the highest tertile of total diversity, 0.24 for vegetable and 0.34 for fruit diversity. In terms of attributable risk, high meat intake accounted for 49% of oral and pharyngeal cancers in this population, low vegetable intake for 65% and low fruit intake for 54%.