Photo by Morinka / Shutterstock.
For decades, I was under the impression that salt is white. Table salt, sea salt, kosher salt, whatever—the sky is blue, the salt is white, and that’s just how things are. Then, about three years ago and for reasons that were not clear to me at the time, much of the salt I encountered was suddenly pink. I bought some pink salt, but I didn’t know why. It seemed like the right thing to do.
Specifically, almost all pink salt is branded as Himalayan. Most of that comes from the enormous Khewra Salt Mine, situated between Islamabad and Lahore in Punjab, a bit south of the actual Himalayas in Pakistan. Those salt veins, formed when ancient seabeds were pushed inland, are hundreds of millions of years old, and legend holds that the site of the mine was originally discovered by Alexander the Great. Now pink salt is available from a slew of food, beauty, and home-decor brands. Instagram wellness influencers insist it will help you regulate your blood sugar and sleep cycle. You can buy a set of shot glasses carved out of rose-colored Himalayan salt for about 30 bucks at Williams Sonoma.
Although pink Himalayan salt is perfectly functional for its intended culinary purpose—making food salty—it’s never before been particularly prized or venerated for its quality. That makes its meteoric rise from food-world also-ran to modern lifestyle totem all the more unlikely. For it to happen, a lot of seemingly separate dynamics in food, media, and health had to collide.
Even if you lack high-end gourmet tendencies, if you’re interested in food at all, you’ve probably encountered pink Himalayan salt periodically since 2009. That’s when Trader Joe’s started carrying it prepackaged in a grinder, according to Erin Baker, a representative for the grocery chain. Baker wouldn’t disclose sales, but noted that Trader Joe’s stores carry fewer products than traditional grocery stores do and cycle out products that don’t sell quickly. “A nine-year (and counting) run [for our pink salt] would be indicative of customer interest,” she told me in an email.
The Trader Joe’s version was my first brush with the product a few years ago, and after I noticed it (which was easy, because it’s pink) on the table at a friend’s dinner party, it seemed to pop up in the home of everyone I visited afterward. The grinders cost only a few bucks, and they appear to catch on like a yawn in social circles of young home cooks assembling their first solid, adult pantries.
That memorable look gives the product an advantage that would otherwise be difficult for marketers to assign to something as mundane as salt: a distinctive brand. “I mean, it’s really pretty, right?” says Megan O’Keefe, the business manager of SaltWorks, America’s largest salt importer. “The pink color and the natural look make seeing a grinder filled with it impactful, and that’s attractive to consumers.”
When the chef and food scientist Ali Bouzari first encountered pink Himalayan salt in a store, it was in a specialty spice shop in Denver. “I asked one of the clerks what it was good for, and she just looked at me and deadpanned: ‘Being pink,’” he told me.
The salt’s color is certainly key to its success as an Instagram icon of aesthetically pleasing home cookery; there are more than 70,000 images under the #pinksalt hashtag. But it also works on another, less obvious level. According to Mark Bitterman, the author of several books on fine salts, Himalayan pink’s aesthetic difference allows consumers to read other differences into it. “We’ve been told we’re not supposed to eat salt, but we need to, and we’re biologically compelled to, and flavor doesn’t work without it,” he says. “So we had to find some way to understand this tension between the existential terror of eating it and the physiological reality of needing it. What we did was we said, ‘Uh, natural salt, pink salt, whatever—that’s safe.’”
Bouzari has seen a similar phenomenon among clients at his food-product consultancy. “Pink salt is ‘good salt.’ Some of our clients literally say that phrase: They want to make sure their paleo pork rind or whatever only has good salt,” he says. Pink salt might be pretty, but it wouldn’t have reached its current popularity without a significant boost from trendy notions of wellness. Often that means single foods or ingredients end up with a vague reputation for quasi-medicinality, often based on notions of their purity or naturalness.
Although many things become popular because of specious health claims attached to them on Instagram by people with lots of followers and few credentials, Himalayan salt seems to be a slightly different case: People saw it and liked it, and many of them reverse-engineered a justification for that desire from there. That often hinges on the elevated levels of trace minerals in the salt, which are what give it its distinctive look. Although those minerals are indeed present, the health claims attached to them are fiction, according to Bouzari. “Compositionally, it doesn’t check out that you would have enough zinc or magnesium or calcium in this salt to make a difference,” he told me. And because salt lacks the chemical context of more complete foods, which contain other elements that help your body efficiently absorb nutrients at a molecular level, it’s doubtful salt would even be a good way to get those nutrients inside you.
Still, the food’s fabled origins are enough to give those claims a veneer of authenticity for plenty of people. Because of Himalayan salt’s American branding as healthful and Eastern, it joins things like turmeric and matcha as ingredients that have long been used outside the United States but that have become fetishized—and sometimes appropriated—for their mystical foreignness and near-magical medicinal properties. “I don’t know that pink salt is anyone’s hallowed cultural touchstone,” says Bouzari. “But I wonder if it was called Pakistani, if people would be quite as taken with it.”
To Bitterman, Himalayan salt’s status as an outsider in American and European traditions seems key to its success. “Right around the time that pink salt made its debut on the American scene, French gray sea salt and fleur de sel were making their debut, which are fancy salts,” he says. “And people seemed to believe they couldn’t be healthy.”
The salt’s popularity probably wouldn’t be possible without the context of rising concerns about industrialized food systems. American Millennials, raised on the processed foods of the ’80s and ’90s, want to know what they’re eating. “It’s almost a farm-to-table idea,” says O’Keefe. “That story of pink salt coming out of the mountains and being mined from these ancient seabeds is romantic.”
And it’s not just food. People love the salt so much that it’s begun showing up in beauty products and decor, such as bath scrubs and salt lamps. Hillary Dixler Canavan, the restaurant editor of the food-culture website Eater, sees that as part of a larger attitude in wellness. “Gwyneth Paltrow once dipped a french fry in Goop face cream and ate it to show how organic it is,” she says. “There is this idea that your beauty supply should be food, and your food should be beauty, as a signifier that you really value natural and organic ideals.”
Dixler Canavan is a little more skeptical about whether pink salt’s uses outside food are proof of its quality. “It’s very telling that it’s not widely used in high-end restaurant kitchens,” she says. “The pink-salt thing is aesthetic. It’s the same thing as having one of those Diptyque candles. It’s another marker of taste and your adherence to what your taste is supposed to be.”
Pink salt is more expensive than its less photogenic counterparts: A five-pound bag of coarse pink Himalayan from SaltWorks will cost you $19, compared with $11.40 for Mediterranean sea salt in the same quantity and coarseness. And because it’s not necessarily eight bucks more functional as an ingredient, that won’t be worth it for some people. For others, though, Bouzari understands the impulse. “It’s theater, it’s performance,” he says. “Little flecks of unicorn cocaine on a nice charred beet? That’s aesthetically appealing, and that will influence flavor indirectly … Functionally, it’s good for everything that salt’s good for, full stop.”