Phytoestrogens include several classes of chemical compounds (i.e., isoflavones, coumestans, and lignans) which are structurally similar to endogenous estrogens. In biological systems, they have both estrogenic and antiestrogenic effects and may reduce the risk of developing certain types of hormonally related diseases. However, little information is available on population differences in exposure to phytoestrogens. To examine racial/ethnic differences in urinary phytoestrogen levels, 50 young women (ages 20-40 years) were randomly selected from participants in a previous epidemiological study in which 24-h urine specimens and a dietary assessment were obtained. Subjects were members of the Kaiser Permanente Medical Care Program of northern California. Selection was stratified on race/ethnicity. Urinary levels of seven phytoestrogens were measured using high-performance liquid chromatography-mass spectrometry. Substantial variation in phytoestrogen levels was observed and racial/ethnic differences are described. The highest levels of coumestrol and the lignans were observed in white women and the lowest levels in Latina and African American women. Genistein levels, however, were highest in Latina women; other isoflavone levels did not differ significantly by race/ethnicity.