Certain dietary antioxidants such as vitamin E and vitamin C are important for maintaining optimum health. There is now much interest in polyphenolic products of the plant phenylpropanoid pathway as they have considerable antioxidant activity in vitro and are ubiquitous in our diet. Rich sources include tea, wine, fruits and vegetables although levels are affected by species, light, degree of ripeness, processing and storage. This confounds the formulation of databases for the estimation of dietary intakes. Most attention to date has focused on the flavonoids, a generic term which includes chalcones, flavones, flavanones, flavanols and anthocyanins. There is little convincing epidemiological evidence that intakes of polyphenols are inversely related to the incidence of cancer whereas a number of studies suggest that high intakes of flavonoids may be protective against CHD. In contrast, numerous cell culture and animal models indicate potent anticarcinogenic activity by certain polyphenols mediated through a range of mechanisms including antioxidant activity, enzyme modulation, gene expression, apoptosis, upregulation of gap junction communication and P-glycoprotein activation. Possible protective effects against heart disease may be due to the ability of some polyphenols to prevent the oxidation of LDL to an atherogenic form although anti-platelet aggregation activity and vasodilatory properties are also reported. However, some polyphenols are toxic in mammalian cells. Thus, until more is known about their bioavailability, metabolism and intracellular location, increasing intakes of polyphenols by supplements or food fortification may be unwise.