Antioxidant functions of vitamins. Vitamins E and C, beta-carotene, and other carotenoids

Ann N Y Acad Sci. 1992 Sep 30:669:7-20. doi: 10.1111/j.1749-6632.1992.tb17085.x.


Tocopherols and tocotrienols (vitamin E) and ascorbic acid (vitamin C) as well as the carotenoids react with free radicals, notably peroxyl radicals, and with singlet molecular oxygen (1O2), this being the basis of their function as antioxidants. RRR-alpha-tocopherol is the major peroxyl radical scavenger in biological lipid phases such as membranes or low-density lipoproteins (LDL). L-Ascorbate is present in aqueous compartments (e.g. cytosol, plasma, and other body fluids) and can reduce the tocopheroxyl radical; it also has a number of metabolically important cofactor functions in enzyme reactions, notably hydroxylations. Upon oxidation, these micronutrients need to be regenerated in the biological setting, hence the need for further coupling to nonradical reducing systems such as glutathione/glutathione disulfide, dihydrolipoate/lipoate, or NADPH/NADP+ and NADH/NAD+. Carotenoids, notably beta-carotene and lycopene as well as oxycarotenoids (e.g. zeaxanthin and lutein), exert antioxidant functions in lipid phases by free-radical or 1O2 quenching. There are pronounced differences in tissue carotenoid patterns, extending also to the distribution between the all-trans and various cis isomers of the respective carotenoids. Antioxidant functions are associated with lowering DNA damage, malignant transformation, and other parameters of cell damage in vitro as well as epidemiologically with lowered incidence of certain types of cancer and degenerative diseases, such as ischemic heart disease and cataract. They are of importance in the process of aging. Reactive oxygen species occur in tissues and cells and can damage DNA, proteins, carbohydrates, and lipids. These potentially deleterious reactions are controlled in part by antioxidants that eliminate prooxidants and scavenge free radicals. Their ability as antioxidants to quench radicals and 1O2 may explain some anticancer properties of the carotenoids independent of their provitamin A activity, but other functions may play a role as well. Tocopherols are the most abundant and efficient scavengers of peroxyl radicals in biological membranes. The water-soluble antioxidant vitamin C can reduce tocopheroxyl radicals directly or indirectly and thus support the antioxidant activity of vitamin E; such functions can be performed also by other appropriate reducing compounds such as glutathione (GSH) or dihydrolipoate. The biological efficacy of the antioxidants is also determined by their biokinetics.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Antioxidants / metabolism*
  • Ascorbic Acid / metabolism*
  • Carotenoids / metabolism*
  • DNA Damage
  • Humans
  • Vitamin E / metabolism*
  • beta Carotene


  • Antioxidants
  • beta Carotene
  • Vitamin E
  • Carotenoids
  • Ascorbic Acid