Betalains are natural pigments recently considered as compounds with potential antioxidative properties. In this work, ex vivo plasma spiking of pure either betanin or indicaxanthin, followed by isolation of low density lipoprotein (LDL), and measurement of its resistance to copper-induced oxidation, has been used to research if these betalains can bind to LDL and prevent oxidation of LDL lipids. When pooled human plasma from 10 healthy volunteers was incubated in the presence of 25-100 microM either betanin or indicaxanthin, incorporation of both compounds in LDL was observed, with a maximum binding of 0.52 +/- 0.08, and 0.51 +/- 0.06 nmoles of indicaxanthin and betanin, respectively, per mg LDL protein. Indicaxanthin-enriched and betanin-enriched LDL were more resistant than homologous native LDL to copper-induced oxidation, as assessed by the elongation of the induction period. The incorporated indicaxanthin, however, appeared twice as effective as betanin in increasing the length of the lag phase, while both compounds did not affect the propagation rate. Both betalains were consumed during the inhibition period of lipid oxidation, and delayed consumption of LDL-beta carotene. Indicaxanthin, but not betanin, prevented vitamin E consumption at the beginning of LDL oxidation, and prolonged the time of its utilization. The resistance of LDL to oxidation when vitamin E and indicaxanthin acted separately in a sequence, was lower than that measured when they were allowed to act in combination, indicating some synergistic interaction between the two molecules. No prooxidant effect over a large concentration range of either betanin or indicaxanthin was observed, when either betalain was added to the LDL system undergoing a copper-induced oxidation. These results show than indicaxanthin and betanin may bind to LDL, and are highly effective in preventing copper-induced lipid oxidation. Interaction with vitamin E appears to add a remarkable potential to indicaxanthin in the protection of LDL. Although molecular mechanisms remain uncompletely understood, various aspects of the action of betanin and indicaxanthin in preventing LDL lipid oxidation are discussed.