Plants produce large amounts of phenylpropanoids, both in terms of molecular diversity and absolute quantity of these compounds. The phenylpropanoids, and the related plant polyketides, have multiple biological functions. They serve to attract pollinators, support secondary cell-wall growth, provide protection against various plant diseases, and interact with beneficial soil microbes. Their basic chemical properties also make them useful in the biofuel and biomaterial industries. Phenylpropanoid metabolism begins with the amino acid phenylalanine, which feeds into various biosynthetic pathways that generate a wide range of structurally related polyphenolic compounds. This review focuses on four sub-groups of these polyphenolic compounds – polyketides, stilbenes, isoflavones and catechins. We discuss the biosynthesis of these molecules, their physiological role in plants, and their striking pharmacological and physiological effects on humans. This review also highlights metabolic engineering efforts aimed at increasing or decreasing the amounts of each class of compound in various model plants and crops.