The antioxidant and prooxidant behavior of flavonoids and the related activity-structure relationships were investigated in this study using the oxygen radical absorbance capacity assay. Three different reactive species were used in the assay: 2,2'-azobis(2-amidino-propane) dihydrochloride, a peroxyl radical generator; Cu(2+)-H2O2, mainly a hydroxyl radical generator; and Cu2+, a transition metal. Flavonoids including flavones, isoflavones, and flavanones acted as antioxidants against peroxyl and hydroxyl radicals and served as prooxidants in the presence of Cu2+. Both the antioxidant and the copper-initiated prooxidant activities of a flavonoid depend upon the number of hydroxyl substitutions in its backbone structure, which has neither antioxidant nor prooxidant action. In general, the more hydroxyl substitutions, the stronger the antioxidant and prooxidant activities. The flavonoids that contain multiple hydroxyl substitutions showed antiperoxyl radical activities several times stronger than Trolox, an alpha-to copherol analogue. The single hydroxyl substitution at position 5 provides no activity, whereas the di-OH substitution at 3' and 4' is particularly important to the peroxyl radical absorbing activity of a flavonoid. The conjugation between rings A and B does not affect the antioxidant activity but is very important for the copper-initiated prooxidant action of a flavonoid. The O-methylation of the hydroxyl substitutions inactivates both the antioxidant and the prooxidant activities of the flavonoids.