A Rainbow Palate by Carolyn Cobbold, cover image

If you opened a can of baked beans to discover a brown gloopy sauce containing brown haricot beans, rather than the orange-red sauce and beans you were expecting, what thoughts would run through your head?

Dr Carolyn Cobbold’s research interests are science and food in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. She has recorded two extracts from her book A Rainbow Palate: How Chemical Dyes Changed the West’s Relationship with Food for Talking of Food

Carolyn Cobbold says:

We now live in a world saturated with synthetic chemicals, and while our society couldn’t function without the hundreds of thousands of synthesised chemicals we use in everything from the food we eat to the packaging surrounding it, our cleaning products and pesticides, our clothes, cars, and household furnishings, concerns are increasing about the impact they are having on the environment and our health, with our bodies now playing host to hundreds of synthetic chemicals that did not exist before the 1850s. Aniline and azo dyes were the substances that led to the synthesised chemical industry that has reshaped our world and the food we eat.


This book focuses on Britain, as one of the first countries to manufacture aniline dyes commercially and to introduce legislation to regulate the sale of adulterated food but one of the last major Western nations to introduce prescriptive legislation banning or permitting food colourings. However, unlike previous histories of either the food or the dye industries, this book is a horse of a different colour, galloping from Britain and France to Germany and the US, tracing the network of chemists working in the chemical manufacturing and food production industries and in public analysis of food. By describing the conflicting roles of the various chemists involved in the production, use, and control of dyes, it is also a horse that cannot be confined to a single stable.

The first extract from A Rainbow Palate concerns the industrial production of food:

The second extract considers the question of food adulteration, including the infamous “E numbers”:

A Rainbow Palate: How Chemical Dyes Changed the West’s Relationship with Food is published by The University of Chicago Press.

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