Antioxidants minimize oxidation of the lipid components in foods. There is an increasing interest in the use of natural and/or synthetic antioxidants in food preservation, but it is important to evaluate such compounds fully for both antioxidant and pro-oxidant properties. The properties of thymol, carvacrol, 6-ginerol, hydroxytyrosol and zingerone were characterized in detail. Thymol, carvacrol, 6-gingerol and hydroxytyrosol decreased peroxidation of phospholipid liposomes in the presence of iron(III) and ascorbate, but zingerone had only a weak inhibitory effect on the system. The compounds were good scavengers of peroxyl radicals (CCl3O2; calculated rate constants > 10(6) M-1 sec-1) generated by pulse radiolysis. Thymol, carvacrol, 6-gingerol and zingerone were not able to accelerate DNA damage in the bleomycin-Fe(III) system. Hydroxytyrosol promoted deoxyribose damage in the deoxyribose assay and also promoted DNA damage in the bleomycin-Fe(III) system. This promotion was inhibited strongly in the deoxyribose assay by the addition of bovine serum albumin to the reaction mixtures. Our data suggest that thymol, carvacrol and 6-gingerol possess useful antioxidant properties and may become important in the search for 'natural' replacements for 'synthetic' antioxidant food additives.