Reactive oxygen species are potentially damaging molecules. An important function of antioxidants is to intercept harmful triplet states, in order to prevent the formation of singlet oxygen, or to quench singlet oxygen directly. However, antioxidants are also reactive towards other active oxygen species such as the hydroxyl radical, the superoxide anion and the non-excited oxygen ground state in the presence of radical initiators. It is well known that flavonoids and carotenoids show strong antioxidant properties. Polyenes and carotenoids are the best known among the compounds that quench singlet oxygen by efficient energy transfer. A large number of modified, synthetic analogues and derivatives have been synthesised to prepare even better quenchers than the natural carotenoids. Phenols are also excellent chain-breaking antioxidants. Recently, many indigoid dyes (including bacterial indigoids) were studied, with the remarkable result that most, but not all, members of this class of chromophores quench singlet oxygen at the diffusion limit and some of them are excellent radical traps. It has been shown in this study that a quantitative assessment of antioxidant properties of flavonoids, carotenoids, phenols and natural indigoids can be achieved using the following three assays: (1) oxygen pressure dependence; (2) peroxide formation; (3) singlet oxygen quenching. Reactivities towards both excited states and ground state radicals can be properly described by these assays. The remarkable role of β-carotene as an ‘unusual antioxidant’ (Burton GW and Ingold KU, Science224: 569–573 (1984)) in reactions using various oxygen pressures becomes clearer. The so-called ‘pro-oxidant effects’ concern primarily the antioxidant itself and its degradation, since no or very little damage to the substrate occurs in this type of experiment. Three main categories of antioxidants may be classified: (1) excellent antioxidants that perfectly quench excited states as well as ground state radicals (eg actinioerythrol, astaxanthin); (2) good antioxidants that strongly inhibit peroxide formation but are less efficient in quenching excited states (eg flavonols, tocopherols) or lead to considerable degradation of the antioxidant itself (eg β-carotene, lycopene); (3) moderate antioxidants that fail to excel in both reactivities (eg ζ-carotene, flavone).
© 2001 Society of Chemical Industry