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A Rainbow Palate

How Chemical Dyes Changed the West’s Relationship with Food

We live in a world saturated by chemicals—our food, our clothes, and even our bodies play host to hundreds of synthetic chemicals that did not exist before the nineteenth century. By the 1900s, a wave of bright coal tar dyes had begun to transform the Western world. Originally intended for textiles, the new dyes soon permeated daily life in unexpected ways, and by the time the risks and uncertainties surrounding the synthesized chemicals began to surface, they were being used in everything from clothes and home furnishings to cookware and food.

In A Rainbow Palate, Carolyn Cobbold explores how the widespread use of new chemical substances influenced perceptions and understanding of food, science, and technology, as well as trust in science and scientists. Because the new dyes were among the earliest contested chemical additives in food, the battles over their use offer striking insights and parallels into today’s international struggles surrounding chemical, food, and trade regulation.

288 pages | 4 halftones, 3 tables | 6 x 9 | © 2020



Food and Gastronomy

History: Environmental History, History of Technology

History of Science


"Elegant and insightful. . . . What is stunning is how pertinent the book is to our own times. You will find here a rehearsal for everything we are facing today—the fads, the fears, the government interventions that are either too late or too rushed, and the nagging sense that the food that most delights the eye may not always be the food that serves us best."

Times Literary Supplement

"Cobbold has produced a fascinating account and analysis of how these dyes were introduced, contested, and ultimately legitimized in an emerging globalized industrial food system. . . . What Cobbold draws our attention to is the inevitable negotiation around expertise and the permitted uses of novel chemical additives. In doing so, she enters a larger discussion about how novel scientific objects and processes evade control once they emerge from the laboratory and enter the world where they are unexpectedly transformed and used. More broadly, this book helps historicize the public construction of trust in science and chemistry."

Scientia Canadensis

"There are many reasons that Cobbold’s story is compelling. Her research is detailed and extensive, using many archival sources along with other primary and secondary ones. She also makes good use of the scientific and mainstream press, juxtaposing the opinions of chemists, government policymakers, and consumers. Lengthy excerpts from press articles, in particular, convey the flavor of shifting public discourse. A Rainbow Palate is also compelling due to Cobbold’s clear writing, accessible to those with little background in chemical history; the book is punctuated by helpful signposts summarizing and linking sections together. . . . Cobbold’s insights about the 19th century help us to understand why this system of trust has become frayed in the 21st century."


"A pioneering work of food science, this compact, well-referenced book captures the rise and fall of the use of synthetic chemicals—particularly coal tar dyes—which were employed in food coloring in the US and Europe during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. . . . The book would be a good acquisition for academic and special collections that support food history, food science, and history of chemistry programs. . . . Recommended."


"A Rainbow Palate fits into a growing body of literature that attempts to bridge the history of modern chemistry to that of food consumption. . . . Cobbold's distinctive contributions to this scholarship become apparent from her deep research into the history of coal tar dyes, revealing the ways in which a profit-driven commitment to the discovery of new synthetic chemicals and their corresponding consumer markets encouraged the inclusion of textile dyes in food."

Technology and Culture

"[Cobbold] highlights a dichotomy between the intimacy we have with our diet and the gulf that often separates us from the understanding of where our ingredients come from."

Nature Reviews Chemistry

"If you thought food coloring was not a serious subject in the history of science, this engaging and accessible book will show you very quickly just how wrong you were. Cobbold tells a wonderful story of complex and fascinating mutual interactions of science, commerce, industry, government, journalism, and law, about how powerful interests jostled around the use and regulation of potentially hazardous synthetic chemical dyes in food. This is a neglected aspect of the celebrated developments in organic chemistry and the dyestuffs industry in the late nineteenth century. In Cobbold’s detailed account, reaching across several countries, we witness how political and legal systems were at a loss to know how to manage and regulate the impact of a formidable and fast-moving field of science, while scientific experts found themselves unable to control the use of their creations or the narratives told about them. A Rainbow Palate is an illuminating cautionary tale of how an important unintended consequence of cutting-edge science can work itself into the very fabric of our daily lives without a clear plan on anyone’s part."

Hasok Chang, University of Cambridge

"In this timely book, Cobbold tells the remarkable story of how the first industrially produced chemical food dyes were created and adjudicated as legitimate additives to food. Nineteenth- and twentieth-century chemists, manufacturers, legislators, and the public all wrestled with questions around food additives still highly relevant today, concerning risk, health, public safety, regulation, testing, and the environment. Were food colorings brilliant instances of scientific and industrial progress or toxic and unnatural artifices? How could dangers be detected and who could keep the public safe? Faced with uncertainty, how should people trust what they ate? Lively and significant, A Rainbow Palate will be indispensable for anyone interested in the difficult process by which societies manage, and fail to manage, radical new technoscientific entities."

Simon Werrett, author of Thrifty Science

Table of Contents



1 Food adulteration and the rise of the food chemist

2 The wonder of coal tar dyes

3 From dye manufacturer to food manufacturer

4 The struggle to devise tests to detect dyes and assess their toxicity

5 The appointment of public food analysts in Britain

6 How British food chemists responded to the use of coal tar dyes

7 French and German chemists seek to arbitrate the use of synthetic chemicals in food

8 The US government acts against chemical dyes in food



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