Oxidative stress, resulting from the imbalance between prooxidant and antioxidant states, damages DNA, proteins, cell membranes, and mitochondria and seems to play a role in human breast carcinogenesis. Dietary sources of antioxidants (chemical) and endogenous antioxidants (enzymatic), including the polymorphic manganese superoxide dismutase (MnSOD), can act to reduce the load of oxidative stress. We hypothesized that the valine-to-alanine substitution that seems to alter transport of the enzyme into the mitochondrion, changing its efficacy in fighting oxidative stress, was associated with breast cancer risk and that a diet rich in sources of antioxidants could ameliorate the effects on risk. Data were collected in a case-control study of diet and breast cancer in western New York from 1986 to 1991. Caucasian women with incident, primary, histologically confirmed breast cancer were frequency-matched on age and county of residence to community controls. Blood specimens were collected and processed from a subset of participants in the study (266 cases and 295 controls). Using a RFLP that distinguishes a valine (V) to alanine (A) change in the -9 position in the signal sequence of the protein for MnSOD, we characterized MnSOD genotypes in relation to breast cancer risk. We also evaluated the effect of the polymorphism on risk among low and high consumers of fruits and vegetables. Premenopausal women who were homozygous for the A allele had a 4-fold increase in breast cancer risk in comparison to those with 1 or 2 V alleles (odds ratio, 4.3; 95% confidence interval, 1.7-10.8). Risk was most pronounced among women below the median consumption of fruits and vegetables and of dietary ascorbic acid and alpha-tocopherol, with little increased risk for those with diets rich in these foods. Relationships were weaker among postmenopausal women, although the MnSOD AA genotype was associated with an almost 2-fold increase in risk (odds ratio, 1.8; confidence interval, 0.9-3.6). No appreciable modification of risk by diet was detected for these older women. These data support the hypothesis that MnSOD and oxidative stress play a significant role in breast cancer risk, particularly in premenopausal women. The finding that risk was greatest among women who consumed lower amounts of dietary antioxidants and was minimal among high consumers indicates that a diet rich in sources of antioxidants may minimize the deleterious effects of the MnSOD polymorphism, thereby supporting public health recommendations for the consumption of diets rich in fruits and vegetables as a preventive measure against cancer.