Antioxidant nutrients from fruits and vegetables are believed to be a class of compounds that exert their effects in humans by preventing oxidative processes which contribute to the onset of several degenerative diseases. This study found a new class of dietary cationized antioxidants in red beets (Beta vulgaris L.). These antioxidants are betalains, and the major one, betanin, is a betanidin 5-O-beta-glucoside. Linoleate peroxidation by cytochrome c was inhibited by betanin, betanidin, catechin, and alpha-tocopherol with IC(50) values of 0.4, 0.8, 1.2, and 5 microM, respectively. In addition, a relatively low concentration of betanin was found to inhibit lipid peroxidation of membranes or linoleate emulsion catalyzed by the "free iron" redox cycle, H(2)O(2)-activated metmyoglobin, or lipoxygenase. The IC(50) inhibition of H(2)O(2)-activated metmyoglobin catalysis of low-density lipoprotein oxidation by betanin was <2.5 microM and better than that of catechin. Betanin and betanidin at very small concentrations were found to inhibit lipid peroxidation and heme decomposition. During this reaction, betanidin was bleached completely, but betanin remained unchanged in its absorption. This difference seems to derive from differing mechanisms of protection by these two compounds. The high affinity of betanin and betanidin for membranes was demonstrated by determining the rate of migration of the compounds through a dialysis tube. Betanin bioavailability in humans was demonstrated with four volunteers who consumed 300 mL of red beet juice, containing 120 mg of the antioxidant. The betacyanins were absorbed from the gut and identified in urine after 2-4 h. The calculated amount of betacyanins found in the urine was 0.5-0.9% of that ingested. Red beet products used regularly in the diet may provide protection against certain oxidative stress-related disorders in humans.