Blue Ambition

Food Chemist Perks Up Palette of M&Ms, Other Candies

That vibrant shade of blue in your bag of M&Ms comes from an unlikely source: red cabbage, by way of a Terp.

Rebecca Robbins Ph.D. ’95, a food chemist focusing on color at Mars Wrigley, made a groundbreaking discovery last year when she used a natural pigment called anthocyanin from the homely vegetable to create an alternative to the synthetic dye for cyan blue that had long been the industry standard.

Rebecca Robbins headshot

This confluence of visual aesthetics, food and science is natural for Robbins, whose family specialized in all three: “My mother was an artist, my father was a doctor, and I lived in France with my grandparents, who were farmers,” she says.

After discovering her natural ability for chemistry in high school, Robbins went on to earn a doctorate in organic chemistry from UMD and pursued a postdoc at Tulane, then joined the faculty at Vassar College, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture as a research scientist. She’s been with Mars Wrigley since 2004, rising to the role of color chemistry manager.

Sure, she likes sweets, but it was the science of color that drew her.

“Color comes from moving electrons in organic molecules—yes, it sounds geeky, but it is true,” she says. “When people think of art, they think of a painting or a drawing, but there is art in discovery, there is art in telling a story about science, and there is art in inquiry.”


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