One striking paradox in epidemiologic research is the strong association between diet and cancer in ecologic studies compared with the weaker associations reported in many within-country case-control and cohort studies. However, most ecologic studies have relied on indirect measures of dietary intake, such as food disappearance data. The objectives of our study were to assess the feasibility of collecting dietary and biomarker data from individuals living in countries having markedly different dietary patterns and cultures and to examine the magnitude of the between-country variation in their measurement. Adults surveyed in Shanghai (China), Costa Rica and King County (Washington, USA) completed a 24-hr dietary recall, a cancer risk factor survey, and provided a blood sample. We analyzed a subset of the blood specimens for vitamins C, E, carotenoids and phospholipid fatty acids. We observed substantial differences in nutrient intakes and in mean plasma concentrations of dietary biomarkers across the study populations. For example, King County participants had the highest daily intake of vitamin C (mean 78.3 +/- 12.2 mg compared with 42.6 +/- 38.3 mg in Shanghai and 34.8 +/- 43.8 mg in Costa Rica). The mean plasma vitamin C level in King County was also the highest of the 3 study sites: 927.9 +/- 43.9 microg/dl in King County, 585.7 +/- 35.9 microg/dl in Shanghai and 461.1 +/- 33.1 microg/dl in Costa Rica. Plasma trans fatty acids (a biomarker of a diet high in hydrogenated fats) were highest in King County and lowest in Shanghai.