Colorectal cancer is the most abundant cause of cancer mortality in the Western world. Nutrition and the microbial flora are considered to have a marked influence on the risk of colorectal cancer, the formation of butyrate and other short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs) possibly playing a major role as chemopreventive products of microbial fermentation in the colon. In this study, we investigated the effects of butyrate, other SCFAs, and of a number of phenolic SCFA and trans-cinnamic acid derivatives formed during the intestinal degradation of polyphenolic constituents of fruits and vegetables on global histone deacetylase (HDAC) activity in nuclear extracts from colon carcinoma cell cultures using tert-butoxycarbonyl-lysine (acetylated)-4-amino-7-methylcoumarin (Boc-Lys(Ac)-AMC) as substrate. Inhibition of HDAC activity, e.g., by butyrate, is related to a suppression of malignant transformation and a stimulation of apoptosis of precancerous colonic cells. In nuclear extracts from HT-29 human colon carcinoma cells, butyrate was found to be the most potent HDAC inhibitor (IC50=0.09 mM), while other SCFAs such as propionate were less potent. In the same assay, p-coumaric acid (IC50=0.19 mM), 3-(4-OH-phenyl)-propionate (IC50=0.62 mM) and caffeic acid (IC50=0.85 mM) were the most potent HDAC inhibitors among the polyphenol metabolites tested. Interestingly, butyrate was also the most potent HDAC inhibitor in a whole-cell HeLa Mad 38-based reporter gene assay, while all polyphenol metabolites and all other SCFAs tested were much less potent; some were completely inactive. The findings suggest that butyrate plays an outstanding role as endogenous HDAC inhibitor in the colon, and that other SCFAs and HDAC-inhibitory polyphenol metabolites present in the colon seem to play a much smaller role, probably because of their limited levels, their marked cytotoxicity and/or their limited intracellular availability.