Revistes Catalanes amb Accés Obert (RACO)

Responding to the colourful use of chemicals in nineteenth-century food

Carolyn Cobbold


The paper explores how chemists tried to deal with one of the first examples of mass-produced industrial chemicals to enter daily life, through investigating the use of coal-tar derived dyes to colour food in the late nineteenth century. From the mid 1850s European chemists manufactured a range of new chemicals included drugs, dyes, scents and flavourings from the derivatives of coal-tar waste. Initially greeted by the nineteenth-century press and public as wonder dyes, the vibrant new colours were seen as an example of how chemistry could transform society. The new dyes, produced for the textile industry, were widely employed to colour food and drink across Europe and America. This paper, a summary of a comparative historical study, demonstrates how cultural differences influence the understanding and management of new scientifically produced substances. The research highlights the difficulties that scientists face in helping determine how new scientific products and processes are applied in the marketplace. It also provides insights into early consumer risk management, the rise of scientific experts, and public health legislation. The second half of the nineteenth century was a time when food production was becoming increasingly industrialised and consumers faced complex and contradictory food knowledge claims. Food manufacturers introduced synthetic colourings and began to employ chemists during a period when food adulteration was of considerable social concern. At the same time, analytical chemists were being paid by the government to identify harmful and fraudulently applied food additives as well as by food companies, raising questions of whom to trust and how scientific knowledge is formed and evaluated. Chemists, and chemical preservatives and colourings, became part of the armour employed by food producers and retailers to secure market share. However, the rapidly changing food market, intensifying industrialization and rising imports of food, led to mounting anxieties about chemical food colourings.

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