The incidence of gastric cancer has declined dramatically in the United States during this century. However, the incidence of gastric cancer among Hispanics, Blacks, and Native Americans remains 2-3-fold higher than among Whites in this country. Populations with an increased risk of gastric cancer have predominantly the "intestinal" type of gastric cancer, and intestinal metaplasia is regarded as a histological precursor lesion of this type of gastric cancer. We sought to establish the prevalence of intestinal metaplasia, identify associated epidemiological factors, and improve detection of this lesion in a patient population undergoing clinically indicated endoscopy in the Southwestern United States. Among the 440 patients studied, we observed an overall crude prevalence of intestinal metaplasia of 19%. However, the crude prevalence among Hispanics and Blacks was found to be markedly higher than among non-Hispanic Whites (50% versus 13%). Two biopsy protocols (two biopsies versus four biopsies) were used during this study, with a significantly higher rate of intestinal metaplasia detection under the four-biopsy protocol. Adjusting for protocol, we found that age and ethnicity were significantly and independently associated with the prevalence of intestinal metaplasia. The odds of intestinal metaplasia diagnosis was significantly higher in Hispanics compared to non-Hispanic Whites (P < 0.001), and the prevalence of intestinal metaplasia increased with advancing age (P = 0.01). The presence of Helicobacter pylori was also significantly associated with the presence of intestinal metaplasia (P = 0.02), although the direction of the association differed between Hispanics and non-Hispanic Whites.