Test Cover Image of:  A Rainbow Palate

A Rainbow Palate

How Chemical Dyes Changed the West’s Relationship with Food

Series: Synthesis
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.

Author Information

Carolyn Cobbold is a research fellow at the University of Cambridge, where she investigates the history of food and science. Her work has been published in Annals of Science, Osiris, Ambix, and Business Insurance, among others.


"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


Audience: Professional and scholarly;