Tea is rich in polyphenols and other phenolics that have been widely reported to have beneficial health effects. However, dietary polyphenols are not completely absorbed from the gastrointestinal tract and are metabolized by the gut microflora so that they and their metabolites may accumulate to exert physiological effects. In this study, we investigated the influence of the phenolic components of a tea extract and their aromatic metabolites upon bacterial growth. Fecal homogenates containing bacteria significantly catalyzed tea phenolics, including epicatechin, catechin, 3-O-methyl gallic acid, gallic acid and caffeic acid to generate aromatic metabolites dependent on bacterial species. Different strains of intestinal bacteria had varying degrees of growth sensitivity to tea phenolics and metabolites. Growth of certain pathogenic bacteria such as Clostridium perfringens, Clostridium difficile and Bacteroides spp. was significantly repressed by tea phenolics and their derivatives, while commensal anaerobes like Clostridium spp., Bifidobacterium spp. and probiotics such as Lactobacillus sp. were less severely affected. This indicates that tea phenolics exert significant effects on the intestinal environment by modulation of the intestinal bacterial population, probably by acting as metabolic prebiotics. Our observations provide further evidence for the importance of colonic bacteria in the metabolism, absorption and potential activity of phenolics in human health and disease. The bioactivity of different phenolics may play an important role in the maintenance of gastrointestinal health.