Damage of the intestinal epithelial barrier by xenobiotics or reactive oxygen species and a dysregulated immune response are both factors involved in the pathogenesis of inflammatory bowel diseases (IBD). Curcumin and rutin are polyphenolic compounds known to have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory activities, but their mechanism(s) of action are yet to be fully elucidated. Multidrug resistance gene-deficient (mdr1a− / − ) mice spontaneously develop intestinal inflammation, predominantly in the colon, with pathology similar to IBD, so this mouse model is relevant for studying diet–gene interactions and potential effects of foods on remission or development of IBD. The present study tested whether the addition of curcumin or rutin to the diet would alleviate colonic inflammation in mdr1a− / − mice. Using whole-genome microarrays, the effect of dietary curcumin on gene expression in colon tissue was also investigated. Twelve mice were randomly assigned to each of three diets (control (AIN-76A), control +0·2 % curcumin or control +0·1 % rutin) and monitored from the age of 7 to 24 weeks. Curcumin, but not rutin, significantly reduced histological signs of colonic inflammation in mdr1a− / − mice. Microarray and pathway analyses suggested that the effect of dietary curcumin on colon inflammation could be via an up-regulation of xenobiotic metabolism and a down-regulation of pro-inflammatory pathways, probably mediated by pregnane X receptor (Pxr) and peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor α (Ppara) activation of retinoid X receptor (Rxr). These results indicate the potential of global gene expression and pathway analyses to study and better understand the effect of foods in modulating colonic inflammation.