Isoflavonoids are a group of biologically active phytochemicals that humans are exposed to mainly through soy food intake. Because of the similar chemical structure of these compounds and estradiol, it has been hypothesized that isoflavonoids may be related to the risk of breast cancer. Overnight urine samples from 60 incident breast cancer cases and their individually matched controls were assayed for urinary excretion rates of five major isoflavonoids (daidzein, genistein, glycitein, equol, and O-desmethylangolensin) and total phenols. These subjects were from a large population-based case-control study conducted in Shanghai, and urine samples from breast cancer cases were collected before any cancer therapy to minimize the potential influence of the disease and its sequelae on study results. Urinary excretion of total phenols and all individual isoflavonoids, particularly glycitein, was substantially lower in breast cancer cases than controls. For total isoflavonoids, the mean excretion was 13.95 nmol/mg creatinine (SD, 20.76 nmol/mg creatinine) for cases and 19.52 nmol/mg creatinine (SD, 25.36 nmol/mg creatinine) for controls (P for difference = 0.04). The case-control difference was more evident when median levels of these compounds were compared, with the median excretion of all major isoflavonoids being 50-65% lower in cases than in controls. Individuals in the highest tertile of daidzein, glycitein, and total isoflavonoids had about half the cancer risk of those in the lowest tertile. The adjusted odds ratio for breast cancer was 0.14 (95% confidence interval, 0.02-0.88) for women whose urinary excretion of both phenol and total isoflavonoids was in the upper 50% compared with those in the lower 50%. The results from this study support the hypothesis that a high intake of soy foods may reduce the risk of breast cancer.