A rapid, sensitive, and selective method for the determination of betaines is described and discussed. The method entails derivatizing the quaternary ammonium compounds to increase their sensitivity to detection by fast atom bombardment mass spectrometry. Sensitivity of detection increases markedly as the length of the carbon chain of the alcohol used to esterify the betaine carboxylic acid group is increased (C4 > C3 > C2 > C1 > C0). The lower limit of detection of glycine betaine as the n-propyl ester is 0.05 nanomole per microliter of glycerol. Betaine aldehyde can be readily derivatized to the di-n-butyl or di-n-propyl acetal derivatives which exhibit lower limits of detection of about 5 picomoles and 10 picomoles per microliter of glycerol, respectively. Accurate quantification of these compounds is accomplished by the use of deuterium labeled internal standards or quaternary ammonium compound homologs of distinct mass. Methods for the synthesis of these internal standards are reported. Some applications of these methods are illustrated with stable isotope tracer studies on the kinetics of metabolism of choline to betaine aldehyde and glycine betaine in spinach leaf discs, and the identification of several Zea mays genotypes which appear deficient in glycine betaine. Tracer studies with deuterium labeled betaine aldehyde suggest that the deficiency of glycine betaine in one sweet corn hybrid is probably not due to a deficiency in the capacity to oxidize betaine aldehyde.