The objective of this study was to compare the effects of linoleic acid (cis,cis-C18:2(n-6)) and its hydrogenation products elaidic (trans-C18:1(n-9)) and stearic acid (C18:0) on serum lipoprotein levels in humans. Twenty-six men and 30 women, all normolipemic and apparently healthy, completed the trial. Three experimental diets were supplied to every subject for 3 weeks each, in random order (multiple cross-over). The Linoleate-diet provided 12.0% of total energy intake as linoleic acid, 2.8% as stearic acid, and 0.1% as trans fatty acids. The Stearate-diet supplied 3.9 energy % as linoleic acid, 11.8% stearic acid, and 0.3% trans fatty acids. The Trans-diet provided 3.8 energy % as linoleic acid, 3.0% stearic acid, and 7.7% as monounsaturated trans fatty acids, largely elaidic acid (trans-C18:1(n-9)). Other nutrients were constant. Fasting blood was sampled at the end of each dietary period. Mean (+/- SD) serum LDL cholesterol was 109 +/- 24 mg/dl (2.83 +/- 0.63 mmol/l) on the Linoleate-diet. It rose to 116 +/- 27 mg/dl (3.00 +/- 0.71 mmol/l) on the Stearate-diet (change, 7 mg/dl or 0.17 mmol/l, P = 0.0008) and to 119 +/- 25 mg/dl (3.07 +/- 0.65 mmol/l) on the Trans-diet (change, 9 mg/dl or 0.24 mmol/l, P less than 0.0001). High density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol decreased by 2 mg/dl (0.06 mmol/l, P less than 0.0001) on the Stearate-diet and by 4 mg/dl (0.10 mmol/l, P less than 0.0001) on the Trans-diet, both relative to linoleic acid. Our findings show that 7.7% of energy (mean, 24 g/day) of trans fatty acids in the diet significantly lowered HDL cholesterol and raised LDL cholesterol relative to linoleic acid. Combination with earlier results (Mensink, R. P., and M. B. Katan. 1990. N. Engl. J. Med. 323: 439-445) suggests a linear dose-response relation. Replacement of linoleic acid by stearic acid also caused somewhat lower HDL cholesterol and higher LDL cholesterol levels. Hydrogenation of linoleic acid to either stearic or trans fatty acids produces fatty acids that may increase LDL and decrease HDL cholesterol relative to linoleic acid itself.