This study was conducted to evaluate the effects of diets including 0, 5, 10, 15, 25, and 40% alfalfa meals (containing 0, 20, 40, 60, 100, and 160 mg total carotenoids/kg diet, respectively) and 60 mg apo-ester, a synthetic carotenoid/kg diet on skin pigmentation, growth, feed utilization and survival of a red variety of goldfish, Carassius auratus, with average initial weight of 10.3 g, for a rearing period of 60 days. The pigmentation degree in skin of goldfish increased significantly with increasing inclusion of alfalfa up to 25% level in the diet (P < 0.05). However. the alfalfa inclusion over that level did not lead to more total carotenoid accumulation in the skin of fish. The diets including apo-ester and 15% alfalfa, both of which contained 60 mg carotenoid/kg diet, had similar effects on total carotenoid deposition in the skin of fish. Alfalfa addition of 25% or higher in the diet had an adverse effect on growth of fish compared to the control group (P < 0.05). A similar phenomenon was observed in feed conversion ratio but at the 40% alfalfa inclusion level (P < 0.05). However, no significant difference was observed in the survival of the fish. The present results demonstrate that alfalfa can be successfully used as an alternative natural carotenoid source to the synthetic apo-ester in goldfish diets. Our data indicates that 15% is a suitable dietary level of alfalfa to ensure good pigmentation, acceptable growth and feed utilization in goldfish. (c) 2008 Elsevier B.V. All rights reserved.