Background: In 2001 the National Cholesterol Education Program (NCEP) provided a categorical definition for metabolic syndrome (c-MetS). We studied the extent to which two ethnic groups, Blacks and Whites were affected by c-MetS. The groups were members of the Hypertension Genetic Epidemiology Network (HyperGEN), a part of the Family Blood Pressure Program, supported by the NHLBI. Although the c-MetS definition is of special interest in particular to the clinicians, the quantitative latent traits of the metabolic syndrome (MetS) are also important in order to gain further understanding of its etiology. In this study, quantitative evaluation of the MetS latent traits (q-MetS) was based on the statistical multivariate method factor analysis (FA). Results: The prevalence of the c-MetS was 34% in Blacks and 39% in Whites. c-MetS showed predominance of obesity, hypertension, and dyslipidemia. Three and four factor domains were identified through FA, classified as "Obesity," "Blood pressure," "Lipids," and "Central obesity." They explained approximately 60% of the variance in the 11 original variables. Two factors classified as "Obesity" and "Central Obesity" overlapped when FA was performed without rotation. All four factors in FA with Varimax rotation were consistent between Blacks and Whites, between genders and also after excluding type 2 diabetes (T2D) participants. Fasting insulin (INS) associated mainly with obesity and lipids factors. Conclusions: MetS in the HyperGEN study has a compound phenotype with separate domains for obesity, blood pressure, and lipids. Obesity and its relationship to lipids and insulin is clearly the dominant factor in MetS. Linkage analysis on factor scores for components of MetS, in familial studies such as HyperGEN, can assist in understanding the genetic pathways for MetS and their interactions with the environment, as a first step in identifying the underlying pathophysiological causes of this syndrome. © 2005 Kraja et al; licensee BioMed Central Ltd.