Nonlinear optical frequency conversion is one of the most versatile methods to generate wavelength-tunable laser light in the mid-infrared region. This spectral region is particularly important for trace gas detection and other applications of molecular spectroscopy, because it accommodates the fundamental vibrational bands of several interesting molecules. In this article, we review the progress of the most significant nonlinear optics instruments for widely tunable, high-resolution mid-infrared spectroscopy: continuous-wave optical parametric oscillators and difference frequency generators. We extend our discussion to mid-infrared optical frequency combs, which are becoming increasingly important spectroscopic tools, owing to their capability of highly sensitive and selective parallel detection of several molecular species. To illustrate the potential and limitations of mid-infrared sources based on nonlinear optics, we also review typical uses of these instruments in both applied and fundamental spectroscopy.