Secondary metabolites aid a plant in important functions such as protection, competition, and species interactions, but are not necessary for survival. One important defining quality of secondary metabolites is their specificity. Usually, secondary metabolites are specific to an individual species. Research also shows that secondary metabolic can affect different species in varying ways. In the same forest, four separate species of arboreal marsupial folivores reacted differently to a secondary metabolite in eucalypts. This shows that differing types of secondary metabolites can be the split between two herbivore ecological niches. Additionally, certain species evolve to resist plant secondary metabolites and even use them for their own benefit. For example, monarch butterflies have evolved to be able to eat milkweed (Asclepias) despite the toxic secondary metabolite it contains. This ability additionally allows the butterfly and caterpillar to be toxic to other predators due to the high concentration of secondary metabolites consumed.
Most polyphenol nutraceuticals from plant origin must undergo intestinal transformations, by microbiota and enterocyte enzymes, in order to be absorbed at enterocyte and colonocyte levels. This gives rise to diverse beneficial effects in the consumer, including a vast array of protective effects against viruses, bacteria, and protozoan parasites.
Secondary metabolites also have a strong impact on the food humans eat. Some researchers believe that certain secondary metabolite volatiles are responsible for human food preferences that may be evolutionarily based in nutritional food. This area of interest has not been thoroughly researched, but has interesting implications for human preference. Many secondary metabolites aid the plant in gaining essential nutrients, such as nitrogen. For example, legumes use flavonoids to signal a symbiotic relationship with nitrogen fixing fungi (rhizobium) to increase their nitrogen uptake. Therefore, many plants that utilize secondary metabolites are high in nutrients and advantageous for human consumption.