Cloth $40.00 ISBN: 9780226727059 Published September 2020
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A Rainbow Palate

How Chemical Dyes Changed the West’s Relationship with Food

Carolyn Cobbold

A Rainbow Palate

Carolyn Cobbold

288 pages | 4 halftones, 3 tables | 6 x 9 | © 2020
Cloth $40.00 ISBN: 9780226727059 Published September 2020
E-book $10.00 to $40.00 About E-books ISBN: 9780226727196 Published September 2020
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.


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


Review Quotes
Times Literary Supplement
"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."
"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."
Hasok Chang, University of Cambridge
"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."
Simon Werrett, author of Thrifty Science
"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."
Nature Reviews
"Cobbold is a historian of science and trains her writing on the ways in which coal tar dyes forced very specific confrontations between chemists, industry, law, government and society. Although her book is putatively engaged with the culinary use of coal tar dyes, the real story evaluates the often-circuitous pathways in which an exciting, but untested, technological advance finds its way into everyday life. That she explores food as the vector for this incorporation 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."
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