Environmental stresses such as high light, low temperatures, pathogen infection and nutrient deficiency can lead to increased production of free radicals and other oxidative species in plants. A growing body of evidence suggests that plants respond to these biotic and abiotic stress factors by increasing their capacity to scavenge reactive oxygen species. Efforts to understand this acclimatory process have focused on the components of the 'classical' antioxidant system, i.e. superoxide dismutase, ascorbate peroxidase, catalase, monodehydroascorbate reductase, glutathione reductase and the low molecular weight antioxidants ascorbate and glutathione. However, relatively few studies have explored the role of secondary metabolic pathways in plant response to oxidative stress. A case in point is the phenylpropanoid pathway which is responsible for the synthesis of a diverse array of phenolic metabolites such as flavonoids, tannins, hydroxycinnamate esters and the structural polymer lignin. These compounds are often induced by stress and serve specific roles in plant protection, i.e. pathogen defence, ultraviolet screening, antiherbivory, or structural components of the cell wall. This review will highlight a novel antioxidant function for the taxonomically widespread phenylpropanoid metabolite chlorogenic acid (CGA; 5-O-caffeoylquinic acid) and assess its possible role in abiotic stress tolerance. The relationship between CGA biosynthesis and photosynthetic carbon metabolism will also be discussed. Based on the properties of this model phenolic metabolite, we propose that under stress conditions phenylpropanoid biosynthesis may represent an alternative pathway for photochemical energy dissipation that has the added benefit of enhancing the antioxidant capacity of the cell.