The real reason why pink Himalayan salt is so expensive

It's hard to make certain food ingredients trendy and cool. Like salt. Who would have thought there would not only be an expensive version of salt out there, but that so many people would be willing to pay so much for it?

There is, and you already know we're talking about pink Himalayan salt. It's not only funky looking stuff (that makes super cool lamps), but according to Healthline, it's had all kinds of health benefits assigned to it. You may have heard about some of them, including the idea that it's much better for you than regular old table salt. In a world that loves their salty foods, that's as close as we're going to get to magic.

But does that alone make it worth so much? And are the health claims all they're cracked up to be? It's kind of complicated, so let's take a look at why you're going to be paying so much for pink salt, and whether or not it lives up to the hype that's helping to drive up the price.

It's one of the purest salts in the world

According to Business Insider, those who live in the areas that mine pink Himalayan salt call it "white gold" which yes, is odd considering it's pink, but it shows just how valuable it is. Picking up a bottle can set you back up to 20 times as much as a similar size of regular table salt, and part of the reason for the price is that it's one of the purest salts in the world.

What does that mean, exactly? According to ThoughtCo., most table salt is extracted from rock salt or halite, or it comes from evaporated sea water. The problem? When sea water evaporates, it can also leave behind pollutants. And the salt that's mined from rock often occurs alongside other chemicals and minerals, some of which are toxic. It's all purified before it hits the shelves, but pink Himalayan salt is a little different.

That comes from crystallized sea-salt beds that were buried deep underground when they were covered in lava, then snow and ice. Those beds have been around for about 200 million years, and the layers on top of them have protected them from all the horrible things we've released into the environment in our modern-day world. It's mined by hand and it's unprocessed, and that all adds up to make it super pure. And that? People are willing to pay for.

It's only found in a few places

Pink Himalayan salt has an awesome history, and according to Salt Works, legend has it that it was first discovered by the horses of Alexander the Great in 326 BC. Horses love salt, after all, and the story says the army was traveling through what's now northern Pakistan when they noticed their horses kept licking the rocks. It was centuries before it was traded, but it's been popular for a lot longer than it's been trending on Instagram.

That place where Alexander's horses reportedly discovered an unexpected treat is still where pink Himalayan salt is mined today. There are only six mines where workers extract the salt by hand, and that makes it sound rare, doesn't it? It's not — it's estimated that the largest of those mines, Khewra (pictured), contains somewhere around 6.7 billion tons of pink salt. (Around 400,000 tons are mined annually.)

The different mines produce different types of pink Himalayan salt (and if there's some in your cupboard, it probably came from Khewra). But here's the thing: Knowing that something is only mined in a single part of the world from a handful of places by a group of workers laboring away to mine by hand makes it exclusive, and that's enough to justify charging more for it, isn't it?

(It's also worth noting that this isn't the only pink salt out there. Australia has entire lakes filled with the stuff, notes ABC News, and they're gorgeous.)

It has a reputation as being all-natural

Pink salt has been around for centuries, and for centuries, people have been, well, using it to make their food salty. It's still very good for that, but according to The Atlantic, pink Himalayan salt skyrocketed in popularity thanks to a weird convergence of things. One of the biggest was how it was connected to today's culture of "all-natural is better," and a massive shift from the ultra-processed foods of the 1980s and '90s to a sustainable system where things are even better if you know where everything on your table was sourced from.

Megan O'Keefe from salt importer SaltWorks puts it this way: "It's almost a farm-to-table idea. That story of pink salt coming out of the mountains and being mined from these ancient seabeds is romantic."

And who wouldn't pay a little more for salt that's not just pretty, but that has a story? It's not your parents' salt, salt that was pushed around by giant machines and run though who-knows-what kind of processes. The adults with the most spending power today — millennials — want to go back to basics, and they're willing to pay more to do so if it means they know where their ingredients came from.

It's been seriously hyped for supposed health benefits

The good news is that yes, humans do need a certain amount of salt and sodium in their diet, because it plays a key role in maintaining things like muscle and nerve health, and it also helps maintain balance in the fluids of your body. But Healthline says that pink Himalayan salt has been credited with doing much more than just that, so much that people are willing to pay more for this magical, mystical pink salt.

Listen to the hype and you'll hear that it can help regulate your sleep patterns, treat the symptoms of respiratory diseases, regulate your blood sugar, and even increase libido and reduce the signs of aging. It's claimed that even when it's in the form of a salt lamp it can cleanse the air of pollutants, and even help those suffering from seasonal affective disorder.

That's a pretty wide variety of things it's reported to help, and it's safe to say that everyone has probably experienced one of those things on the list, or has a family member who gets what it's like to have some long and sleepless nights. The thing is, actual scientific evidence that any of this is actually true is scarce, but it's not going to hurt… right?

It's been marketed as an exotic luxury item

In short, it's all about the marketing.

Take a look at the marketing hype that surrounds pink Himalayan salt and you'll hear a lot of buzz words. Mountain Rose Herbs markets theirs with terms like "Gourmet Food Grade," boasts it's the stuff "holistic chefs" use, and calls it "luxurious and delectable." They're not the only ones: The San Francisco Salt Co. calls it "The Most Beautiful Salt on the Planet," saying that it's "different from salt found anywhere else on the planet."

And that's just the salt you can eat. Jezebel reports that a luxury spa in Manhattan called Modrn Sanctuary has an entire room made of pink Himalayan salt, where you can sit under "therapeutic" LED lights and breathe the air. So, you know it's trendy and hip (and, of course, expensive).

The Atlantic credits marketing as being a large part of pink Himalayan salt's wild popularity and price tag, and part of that, they say, is that it's been branded as something magical and mystical and — most importantly — Eastern. Western culture has always had an obsession with the exotic ingredients from the Far East (we're looking at you, matcha and turmeric), and saying something is "Himalayan" brings up a ton of mental images and associations. Chef and food scientist Ali Bouzari added this bit of food for thought: "I wonder if it was called Pakistani, if people would be quite as taken with it."

Trader Joe's helped make it trendy

The Atlantic says America's obsession with pink Himalayan salt really started in 2009 when Trader Joe's added it to their shelves. While they tend not to talk about sales and what kinds of numbers they're seeing, they do say that having it in stock for so many years is an indicator that it's a steady and popular seller.

And food writer Mark Bitterman has observed something else about pink Himalayan salt that sets it apart from the other brands on grocery store shelves, something that explains a bit about pink salt's popularity and our willingness to pay more for 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. 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," he said. "What we did was we said, 'Uh, natural salt, pink salt, whatever—that's safe.'"

And we'll pay for foods that are safe.

A little bit goes a long way

There is one thing that pink Himalayan salt has going for it that might help explain the price tag: You're getting more bang for your buck with each oversized crystal.

According to Rene Ficek, dietitian and nutritionist from Seattle Sutton's Healthy Eating (via Yahoo), most pink Himalayan salt is stone-ground, and that means there's bigger chunks in that bottle. When you compare it to a more finely ground table salt, you'll find that you need less pink Himalayan salt to flavor your foods, and that's because, according to Medical News Today, the pink stuff tastes saltier than table salt. As Ficek explains, "This can make a small difference in lowering overall salt consumption, which is a great thing. The more salt you eat, the more fluids you retain, and the harder it is for your heart to work to process these fluids, which can increase blood pressure."

Knowing you only need a few grains of pink salt to achieve maximum flavor just might help justify the cost of that bottle, and even better, by using those chunky grains, you're potentially lowering your salt intake at the same time. Win, win.

It's all about the minerals

First, a bit of science. (Just a bit. Promise.) Salt and sodium aren't the same thing. Salt, after all, is a combination of the ions sodium and chloride. And it really is magical: On their own, they can kill (via Forbes), but together, they make food wonderful and they keep our body functioning. That's mostly what salt is, but that's not all — and according to Science Based Medicine, other types of salt have various amounts of other minerals. And that's where many people hop on the pink Himalayan salt bandwagon.

It's claimed that pink Himalayan salt has 84 trace minerals in it that regular table salt just doesn't have, and internet wisdom says that's a good thing. But, like many good things, there's a catch. Nutritionists say those elements and minerals exist in minuscule amounts, way too small to actually have any kind of impact on our health. And sometimes, that's a good thing. Among those elements are things like uranium, radium, polonium, and thallium, which is a poison. There's not enough of those things in the salt to hurt you, and isn't that proof that there's not enough of the good things to do any good, either? This is one bit of marketing that raises the price just because it sounds good.

It's super photogenic and Instagrammable

There's an old saying that looks aren't everything, but in today's age of social media and Instagram, looks are pretty important — especially when it comes to food and getting that perfect shot that's going to get you more followers.

And that, says The Atlantic, is part of the reason retailers can charge so much for it — they know people will pay to give their dishes that extra little bit of trendy and hip. There are tens of thousands of images tagged #pinksalt on social media, and it's fancying up everything from soaps and lotions to cupcakes, popcorn, and giant slabs of barbecued meats. There's seemingly no end to the uses for pink Himalayan salt, and that just makes it even more versatile when it comes to getting creative and gaining followers. And the fact that it's pretty hasn't just kicked off a foodie photograph trend, it's done a bit to help raise the value of a bottle, too.

Because it's pink

"Because it's pink" sounds like a very strange thing to blame a high price on, but a weird thing happens when things are pink: the price goes up. It's called the pink tax.

Listen Money Matters found that women end up spending about 42 percent more on things that are designed for women, with razors being sort of the flagship example of this. Women's razors — which are often pink — cost a heck of a lot more than men's razors, and that's a trend that continues across the market. From self-care products to clothing, women's stuff just costs more — and Forbes has wondered if the higher price of pink Himalayan salt is the same principle at work.

It comes down to value, and it's the belief that because something is pink, women are more likely to buy it as a sign of femininity. It's pretty, so we buy it — even if it means spending a little extra. Does that extend to salt? You decide.

It's mined by hand

Pink Himalayan salt is still mined by hand, and without massive machines to help them, that means the miners have to work much, much harder. Many are a part of families that have been doing it for generations, and according to Dawn, it's not a bad gig.

Miners tend to work in the salt mines for eight hours a day, six days a week. In 2018, miners in the Khewra salt mines made about seven times what their fathers did just a generation ago, and Maqsood Hussain had this to say about his job: "I am quite satisfied with my work as I not only get a handsome wage but am also given other facilities such as free cost treatment for myself and my family members."

It's not easy work, far from it. Mining is considered one of the hardest jobs in Pakistan, and it's one that commonly comes with labor abuses. But the miners of Khewra — mostly descendants of the 30 families who originally started working in the mines when they were developed by the British in 1872 — have free healthcare (for themselves and their families), a guaranteed life insurance policy paid to their heirs in case of accidental death, and wages that are high enough to allow them to put their children through college. When the daughter of a miner gets married, she's even given a grant. All things considered, there's worse ways to make a living.

But is it really worth it?

Let's talk bottom line. Is pink Himalayan salt worth paying more for?

The only real benefit here is that because of those bigger granules, a teaspoon of pink Himalayan salt is going to have less sodium than a teaspoon of regular salt, and that's a good thing. But the salt you add to your meals isn't the biggest source of salt in your diet — it's all the hidden sodium you have to worry about, so it's not going to make a huge difference. According to both Medical News Today and Healthline, there's little to no evidence that switching to pink Himalayan salt is going to give you any health benefits whatsoever.

So there's that.

There's also a potential danger here, too. One of the things our bodies need to function properly is iodine: It's necessary for us to maintain cell health and thyroid function. The most common way we get it is in iodized salt — about 75 percent of American households have the stuff in their cupboard, and it's super important. Take that away, and you're at risk of developing an iodine deficiency. They're all things to consider before you reach for the pricey bottle of pretty pink salt.