Sprinkle it on your food or fashion it into a Rock Salt candle for your new meditation room, Himalayan sea salts are those pretty pinkish-reddish-orangey crystals which some claim possess a few curious health benefits and maybe even spiritual healing powers. Not a newcomer to the super(ish)food scene, Himalayan sea salt has cemented itself into supermarkets and cafes as a general condiment – which is a far greater achievement than most rookies to the superfood spread can claim. But is there anything to these little food rocks or should we be taking it all with a large grain of salt?
What’s it taste like?
Well…it’s salt. It tastes like salt. Salty, if you will. You put it with food and that food tastes saltier. There’s not really much more to say on the topic, unsurprisingly. There are some that claim it does somehow taste different, but if it does to them I suspect this might be down to the large granulated nature of the crystals not its chemical contents.
I know, I know, the chemistry of crystal structures doesn’t give everyone a solid – but I promise it’s interesting…plus, there are some pretty colours at the end.
Regular old table salt is pretty much all sodium chloride (>98% NaCl), a familiar white (ionic) solid in its pure form. While most table salts will have some harmless natural impurities e.g. calcium (Ca2+), magnesium (Mg2+), and potassium (K+) depending on where they’re mined, these wont’t change the colour or appearance. Nor do additives like iodide or anti-caking agents included during processing.
In the case of Himalayan sea salt, there are also variable amounts of different transition metal ion impurities in the crystals which give the salts their unique colours. These may include Iron (Fe3+), zinc (Zn2+), copper (Cu2+), and chromium (Cr3+). Interestingly, this is the same reason that many precious gem stones are different colours whilst having the same base chemical composition; Emeralds and aquamarine are both types of beryl minerals (Be3Al2(SiO3)6 but the presence of chromium (Cr) and iron (Fe) give these gems their distinctive hues (Figure 1).
Figure 1: Right: Polished emerald gemstone (green, Cr3+ impurities) and, Left: unprocessed aquamarine gemstone (blue, Fe3+ impuirites). Source: L.D.nifty Blog composite from Wikipedia.com images.
It’s hopefully not a surprise to hear that we need salt (sodium chloride) as part of a healthy diet for our body to work normally. We get pretty much all we need from our food just by accident. I’ll not bore you here with all the normal functions of sodium ions in your body, but basically if you don’t have enough then things (like your nerves) stop working and if you have too much parts of you start to (figuratively) explode.
Some curious biology rears its head with the common claim by Himalayan sea salt advocates that the colourful crystals contain up to 84 of the apparently essential elements needed for human health – including fun little tag-alongs like arsenic (As), lead (Pd), and uranium (U). Now, it’s an odd claim to start with as the research shows you only need 22 essential elements to make a happy human, with maybe a further 7 elements suspected to join in bodily functions if given the chance (Figure 2). Luckily, when these products are actually tested they’re found to not contain any significant levels of most of these elements beyond what you’d just find in the background environment and in any food; lucky for us because most of them are quite toxic or even radioactive.
Figure 2: Elements essential for human life and health (green) and elements (blue) which may participate in biological processes if present (not necessarily beneficially). Source: L.D.nifty Blog unique composite.
One significant difference in some countries is the addition of iodine compounds (one of our essential elements) to processed table salt to supplement a lack of iodide in our diets. Himalayan sea salts do contain iodine naturally but not at levels high enough to supplement deficiency or prevent disease. Iodine deficiency can cause serious problems in pregnancy and intellectual development in children,  as well as thyroid diseases like goiter which can manifest as heart and metabolic conditions. It has been estimated that about two billion people around the world don’t get enough iodine from their diets, including those enjoying a diverse first-world diet. While table salt is fortified with iodine here in New Zealand, there’s now evidence of iodine deficiency once again. This is thought to be due to the low natural abundance of iodide in NZ soils, a reduction in salt usage in home cooking generally, and a shift towards non-supplemented products like Rock salts and Himalayan sea salts.
I’d have thought this was going to be a far shorter list but the mad bounty that is the internet has served up a colourful array of health benefits for Himalayan sea salt. There are nice generic claims like it having lots of lovely essential trace elements (e.g. iron) but I’d really hope people weren’t using any salt in high enough amounts that these would be main dietary source. Apparently Himalayan sea salt is also somehow purer and more ‘natural’ than table salt – which is a little nonsensical chemically as it’s the presence of impurities that give the salt its colours. This is often an unfortunate pitfall of pop-science on the net when defined scientific terms are used liberally to mean lots of generic things (see: pure, natural, organic, energy, etc). But that’s a topic for another day.
There are also some more weighty health claims made to encourage swapping out your faithful old table salt for its Himalayan cousin, including: improvement in heart health and lower blood pressure, reducing aging, promoting sleep, improving blood pH, and detoxing the body of heavy metals. It wouldn’t be a superfood if it didn’t somehow detox, right?. One curious and counter-intuitive health claim is that it will decrease your sodium intake because the crystals are bigger. I assume the reasoning behind this is that you’d end up using less of it by mass as the crystals don’t pack together as closely. So basically, the same as just using less salt – not really an effective strategy if you’re trying for a low-sodium diet.
Being a pretty crystal and the internet being what it is, Himalayan sea salt is also associated with various new-age spiritual claims, often talking about ‘vibrational energy’ – which I won’t even get into here lest it destabilize my aura …or something.
Finally, there’s also a bit of scaremongering around normal table salt being heated to very high temperatures and having other terrible properties which apparently means our body can’t absorb it properly – it all amounts to a lolly-scramble of chemistry and biology sounding words that are actually just non-sense. I’d love to know where they get their creativity from.
Generally, many of the health claims, both good and bad, ascribed to Himalayan sea salt are just things any table salt would do. It’s not uncommon to see products claim wonderful benefits just to find out that they’re not unique to that product or that whilst the claim may be true it’s completely irrelevant. Just think “fat-free” marshmallows – well, yes, it’s true but that’s because they’re all sugar. Doesn’t make them healthy or mean that other things aren’t also fat-free.
Specifically for Himalayan sea salt, there is no published scientific research to support any benefit from using Himalayan sea salt over table salt. The more unusual claims like improving heart health are often easily dispelled from well-established medical principals.
Low: Unless you’re deficient in iodine, there probably isn’t going to be any noticeable difference over regular old table salt. Although, in all honesty, you’d probably be better off getting more iodine through other foods like seafood, fortified breads and dairy products.
Depending on the source, occasionally some Himalayan sea salts aren’t safe for consumption without purification due to the presence of higher than allowed natural impurities like lead (Pb) and cadmium (Cd). So much for the purity argument, but you gotta remember that nature isn’t benevolent – it’s just kinda there. It may occasionally try to kill you.
I’d say you should take any health claims with a hefty grain of salt. There’s really no advantage to Himalayan sea salt over your humble old table salt accompaniment. I imagine health experts would suggest you put down both a little more often seeing you’re likely getting all the sodium you need from your food (and you may always risk insulting your chef). If you’re lucky enough to live in the diverse food-rich developed world (which seems likely if you’re reading a food science blog) then even the iodine supplementation in table salt may not be giving you any additional benefit, and if you do need more iodine there may be healthier options than more salt. Best place for Himalayan sea salt might just be as a salt candle decoration for that hard to buy person this Christmas – until of course it absorbs water from the atmosphere, leaks, and destroys the varnish on their bedside table – oops.
References and Footnotes