Himalayan pink salt, not so long ago solely the preserve of rather bougie establishments – at least, in the West – has exploded in popularity, being touted as everything from a tastier or healthier version of regular salt to an honest-to-goodness miracle panacea. The truth, as ever, is far more complex.
Aside from its pretty pink hue, there’s not much that separates the Himalayan version of the condiment from the one in your kitchen cupboards right now. So what gives this seasoning its trademark color, and why do we keep hearing so much about its supposed health benefits? Let’s take a look at what, precisely, all the hype is about.
Because one thing’s for sure: Himalayan pink salt is not what you’ve been told.
Where does Himalayan pink salt come from?
We know it sounds like a trick question – after all, it’s called Himalayan salt for a reason, right?
Well, if you want to get really, really technical about it, then yes, the iconic pink salt does come from the Himalayas – but it’s definitely not the snow-capped peaks of Everest or Kanchenjunga that the name evokes. Instead, it’s mined from the marshy hills of northeastern Pakistan, in an area known as the Salt Range – one of the most distant foothills of the Himalayan mountains proper, located more than 1,400 kilometers (nearly 900 miles) away from Mount Everest.
Neither does the condiment-cum-new age accessory come from a mystical gathering process, perhaps at the hands of Buddhist monks or nomadic Changpa yak herders, that you may have imagined. In fact, the rosy sodium is big business in the area, with some 400,000 tons (363,000 tonnes) of salt literally blasted out of vast underground mines, hauled onto trucks, and exported out of the country each year.
That sounds like a lot of salt – and it is, being the equivalent in weight of about 15 Statues of Liberty per annum – but the reservoirs are nowhere near being mined out yet. Legend has it that the Salt Range was first discovered by the army of Alexander the Great back in 320 BCE, but the pink seasoning has been traded widely since at least the 1500s; five centuries later, the other side of massive and brutal industrialization at the hands of Victorian British colonizers, there’s still an estimated 300-plus years’ worth of salt lying in the famous Khewra Salt Mine alone.
Even then, the mines may still prove profitable for the region. Khewra, for example, doubles up as a major tourist attraction, offering guided tours, replicas of famous structures like the Great Wall of China and the Minar-e-Pakistan in Lahore, its own mosque and post office built out of salt bricks, and even a health spa offering salt-based treatments for conditions such as asthma.
Does Himalayan pink salt have health benefits?
The PR team at Khewra aren’t the only people to have suggested that the local pink salt might hold certain curative properties. From salt lamps that can supposedly treat seasonal affective disorder to straight-up drinking the stuff in a glass of water, Himalayan pink salt has in recent years become one of those products where, if it could really do everything its advocates promised, it would be nothing short of a miracle.
But even the more science-y sounding explanations for these various pink salt therapies are pretty spurious. “Marketers tout their supposed ability to release negative ions that may enhance physical and emotional health,” said Andy Weil, the founder and program director of the University of Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine, in a 2017 article from TIME magazine.
Google some of those keywords, and sure, you may find a study or two linking exposure to negative ions and improved mood and cognition – but the results are likely more specific and limited than salt lamp marketers advertise. Even if negative ions were some kind of magical panacea, there’s still a problem: namely, Himalayan salt lamps have not been shown to actually generate negative ions in any case. “There is no scientific support for such claims related to Himalayan salt lamps,” Weil pointed out.
Meanwhile, claims that guzzling the stuff neat – or in combination with water or other ingredients – will act as some kind of miracle detox cure for your body are equally baseless. Often relying on the fact that Himalayan pink salt contains certain beneficial minerals – which is technically true – what these claims often fail to mention is just how little of those nutrients you’re actually getting in a scoop of pink salt.
“Research has not shown that Himalayan salt has any unique health benefits compared to other dietary salt,” advises WebMD. “The mineral impurities that give it a pink color, often promoted as healthful, are far too low in concentration to help with your nutrition.”
Indeed, with pink salt being between 96 and 99 percent sodium chloride – that is, normal table salt – you “would have to eat a lethal amount of sodium to achieve helpful quantities of the other minerals,” the site adds.
Why is Himalayan pink salt pink?
Which brings us to the million-dollar question: what gives Himalayan pink salt its characteristic rosy hue?
It may be one of the condiment’s more mystical-seeming – and, let’s face it, marketable – traits, but the answer is surprisingly mundane: it comes from the extra minerals that are present in the salt crystals.
“Due to the high amount of iron oxide, the salt takes on a pink color,” Javed Ahmed Bhatti, founder and CEO of Ittefaq Salt, a Himalayan salt manufacturer based in Lahore, told Popular Mechanics earlier this year. That’s the scientific name of what most of us know best as “rust” – so, next time somebody tells you how much more tasty and nutritious pink salt is, you’ll know it’s for the same reason your car makes that screeching noise whenever you hit the brakes.
Of course, not all pink is made equal, and Himalayan pink salt can actually contain trace amounts of quite a few minerals, such as calcium, iron, zinc, chromium, and magnesium, all of which impact the specific color each crystal ends up as. But while those are all beneficial minerals that your body needs to keep working properly, it bears repeating: switching out regular salt in your diet for the Himalayan version isn’t going to give you some kind of health boost. “Compositionally, it doesn’t check out that you would have enough zinc or magnesium or calcium in this salt to make a difference,” chef and food scientist Ali Bouzari told The Atlantic in 2018.
So, if Himalayan pink salt doesn’t have any health benefits, and isn’t even really sourced that close to the Himalayas, why are we spending up to 20 times as much on it as regular salt?
The answer, it seems, is both simple and narratively satisfying. Upon first encountering Himalayan pink salt in a store, "I asked one of the clerks what it was good for,” Bouzari recalled. “She just looked at me and deadpanned: ‘Being pink.’”
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The content of this article is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of qualified health providers with questions you may have regarding medical conditions.