Aim of this study was to analyse the relationship between the plasma levels of polyphenols and the antioxidant activity of red and white wine. Twenty healthy subjects (HS) were randomly allocated to drink 300 ml of red (n = 10) or white n = 10 wine for 15 days. Ten HS who refrained from any alcohol beverage for 15 days were used as control. Urinary PGF-2alpha-III, a marker of oxidative stress and plasma levels of polyphenols were measured. Urinary PGF-2alpha-III significantly fell in subjects taking wine with a higher percentage decrease in subjects given red wine (-38.5 +/- 6%, p < 0.001) than in those given white wine (-23.1 +/- 6%). Subjects taking red wine had higher plasma polyphenols than those taking white wine (1.9 +/- 0.6 microM versus 1.5 +/- 0.33 microM, p < 0.001). Plasma polyphenols were inversely correlated with urinary PGF2alpha (r = 0.77, p < 0.001). No changes of urinary isoprostanes were observed in subjects who refrained from wine intake. In vitro study demonstrated that only a mixture of polyphenols, all in a range corresponding to that found in human circulation, inhibited LDL oxidation and PKC-mediated NADPH oxidase activation. Such inhibitory effects were more marked using the concentrations of polyphenols detected in human circulation after red wine intake. This study shows that red wine is more antioxidant than white wine in virtue of its higher content of polyphenols, an effect that may be dependent upon a synergism among polyphenols.