Epidemiological studies have associated coffee consumption with an inverse risk of developing Parkinson's disease, hepatocellular carcinoma and cirrhosis. The molecular mechanisms by which low concentrations of the constituents of coffee measured in human plasma can reduce the incidence of such diseases are not clear. Using an in vitro plasmid DNA system and radiolytically generated reactive oxygen species under constant radical scavenging conditions, we have shown that coffee chlorogenic acid, its derivatives and certain metabolites of caffeine reduce some of the free radical damage sustained to the DNA. A reduction in the amount of prompt DNA single-strand breaks (SSBs) was observed for all compounds whose radical one-electron reduction potential is < 1.0 V. However, except for chlorogenic acid, the compounds were found to be inactive in reducing the amount of radical damage to the DNA bases. These results support a limited antioxidant role for such compounds in their interaction with DNA radicals.