Epidemiological and experimental evidence suggests that dietary folate may protect against colorectal carcinogenesis. The epidemiological relationship between a biochemical measure of folate status and colorectal neoplasia in a sizeable and generally healthy population does not yet appear to have been reported. We conducted a case-control study of the relationships among red cell folate, plasma folate, folate intake, and adenomatous polyps, intermediate markers for colorectal cancer. During 1991-1993, fasting blood samples were assayed and dietary and nondietary risk factor questionnaires were administered to men and women ages 50-75 years who had a free sigmoidoscopy at a health maintenance organization. We analyzed data from 682 subjects (332 cases and 350 controls), controlling for potential confounding by sex, age, sigmoidoscopy date, and clinic. For red cell folate levels 160 ng/ml (363 nmol/liter) or more, compared to lower levels, the odds ratio was 0.76 [95% confidence interval (CI) = 0.53-1.08]. For men, the corresponding odds ratio was 0.53 (CI = 0.32-0.87); for women, it was 1.16 (CI = 0.67-2.00). Results were essentially unchanged when adjusted for levels of blood nutrients and other potential confounding variables. Plasma folate and folate intake results were similar to red cell folate results, but the associations with polyps were weaker. Results are consistent with a protective effect of red cell folate concentration against the development of colorectal polyps, at least in men. A folate effect may depend on sex-specific interactions with other nutritional or physiological factors.