How man-made chemicals have saturated all our lives

Carolyn CobboldCarolyn Cobbold
Carolyn Cobbold
A Birdham-based author has written a new book on the legitimisation of synthetic dyes in food which, she says, sheds a torchlight on many of today’s most controversial issues – from trust in science and food to international disputes over regulation and trade and how man-made chemicals have saturated all our lives.

In A Rainbow Palate: How Chemical Dyes Changed the West’s Relationship with Food, Carolyn Cobbold, a Cambridge University research fellow, explains how the first laboratory-produced chemicals were introduced into food, leading to the wholesale legitimisation of man-made chemicals as food ingredients.

She describes 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 additives in food, the battles over their use offer striking insights and parallels into today’s international struggles surrounding chemical, food and trade regulations.

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“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 19th century. By the 1900s, a wave of bright new coal tar dyes had begun to transform the Western world. These dyes were the foundation of the chemical industry we know today. BASF, Bayer, Hoechst and Ciba Geigy were among the chemical companies that started life producing coal tar dyes. Not only did the new dyes lead to the creation of the world’s first techno-science industrial conglomerates, they revolutionised the west’s relationship with chemicals, science and even food.

“Understanding how new chemicals, created in laboratories from a fossil fuel, came to be accepted as legitimate food additives, despite ongoing concerns about their toxicity and widespread food adulteration, is not just fascinating for historians. This history is one that will reward any reader interested in the machinations and interaction of politics, science, commerce, the media, law and the nation state.

“And the parallels with today’s major political issues are striking including debates over the harm caused by man-made chemicals, the role of scientists in advising governments how to manage coronavirus, balancing the risks of public harm with the benefits of economic growth, national versus international regulation, battles over food trade and growing concerns about food production and provenance.”

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