Fact or Fiction: Himalayan Salt Edition

It’s time again to separate fact from fiction.

While mainstream nutrition advice is to cut down on dietary sodium, or salt, in our diet, many alt-health practitioner are promoting the use of “healthier salts” like Pink Himalayan salt. So what gives? Are there any truths to these claims? Or is this just another cleverly marketed snake oil aimed at siphoning off your hard earned money?

Join me while I explore what's being said online about Himalayan salt. Will the claims be more fiction than fact? Let's find out...

Pink Himalayan salt “contains the same 84 trace minerals and elements that are found in the human body” including “sodium chloride, sulphate, calcium, potassium, and magnesium.”

One of the touted health benefits of Himalayan salt is that it is packed full of trace minerals (84, to be exact) that regular table salt is deficient in. This is indeed true. Himalayan salt has been analyzed (see here) and it does contain a number of trace minerals and elements. The questions here are, do we need all these elements and are they of significant quantity to make a difference?

Taking a quick scan of the nutrient analysis does show an impressive number trace elements. However, upon closer examination you’ll also notice that traces of lead, mercury, arsenic, cadmium, and uranium are included in this “impressive” list. Granted, these are all in small amounts but this is also true of most of the other, more healthful elements present. Having a lot of different minerals doesn’t mean that it’s better for us, especially when they are in such a small quantities.

The analysis also shows that Himalayan salt is 97.41% NaCl (sodium chloride) which it notes “meets the worldwide necessary standards for table salt”. This means that Himalayan salt is essentially the same concentration as table salt in terms of its sodium chloride content. A quick calculation easily determines that the rest of the elements noted in the chemical analysis are crammed in the remaining 2.59%. This isn’t very much.

How much sodium do you have to take on in order to benefit from the small amount of minerals in Himalayan salt? Wouldn't it be better to get the additional minerals from wholesome foods, rather than from a salt?

“Salt is part of our DNA makeup. It is a mineral that our body needs”

DNA, or deoxyribonucleic acid, is essentially the blueprints of each living organism. DNA itself does not contain sodium. Each DNA molecule contains a phosphate, a sugar group and a nitrogen base. No sodium there.

Now, I guess this statement could be a poorly worded way of meaning that our body needs sodium to survive. This is true. I’ll give them that. Sodium is essential for a number of processes within the body including:

  • preventing low blood pressure
  • maintaining fluid balance
  • facilitating nerve and muscle function

So, yeah, we do need sodium. Can’t dispute that.

“It [Himalayan Salt] is even typically mined by hand.”

So, being hand-mined somehow makes the salt magical? I don’t know about you but I’m okay with machines being used to mine salt. Would I rather have some poor, exhausted soul with an aching back slave away excavating my salt by hand? Maybe their sweat makes it even saltier, who knows?

Note: I really don’t know who “hand mines" the salt. I’m just assuming it’s grueling physical work. I just find it funny that if technology is used in any way, shape, or form that it is automatically considered bad by some individuals.

“When consuming this salt, you are actually getting less sodium intake per serving than regular table salt because it is less refined and the pieces are larger. Therefore Himalayan salt has less sodium per serving...”

pinksaltb.jpg

Basically this statement is saying that because Himalayan salt is sold in larger crystals (like coarse-grained kosher salt) you use less and, therefore, your intake of sodium is less. I guess this statement is correct in that if you use less of a (similar) product, you will get less of it...but this means that you actually have to use less of it.

The funny thing about this statement is that, in the same piece of “literature” that I extracted it from, it recommends that you should “always use pre-ground salt or grinders like any other kind of salt.” (note: this statement was conveniently paired with a link selling pre-ground Himalayan salt). Essentially they are telling you that it’s still best to grind it which will make it the same size as regular table salt, won’t it? If you are following along, this means that you’ll be getting the same amount of sodium as, you guessed it, table salt.

 

“Another great thing about this salt is that, because of its unique cellular structure, it stores vibrational energy.” and “The vibrational energy of the Himalayan Crystal Salt remains in your body for 24 hours.”

Citations needed. If you are going to make far out claims like this, you should probably have some evidence backing them up.

“With most table salts, you’re only left with one mineral (sodium), some added iodine and most often some really health-hazardous anti-clumping agents.”

As stated above, table salt and Himalayan salt (and sea salt, for that matter) contain virtually the same amount of sodium chloride. Both hover around 98% NaCl. Table salt is definitely a more refined product. There is no denying that. Does this make it worse?

And yes, iodine is added to table salt. Starting in the 1920’s American salt companies voluntarily started adding iodine to table salt. This movement was in response to a high number of individuals with goiters, caused by iodine deficiency. By adding iodine to table salt, the incidence of goiter dropped from 30% to less than 2%. In Canada, iodization of table salt was made mandatory in 1949.

As with any nutrient fortified product, there is always the fear of getting too much of a good thing. Table salt is said to contain about 45 micrograms (mcg) of iodine per ⅛ to ¼ teaspoon. Knowing that the UL (or Upper Tolerable Intake Level) of iodine is 1100 mcg for adults, a quick calculation shows that it would take somewhere between 3 to 6 teaspoons of iodized salt to reach the maximum recommended intake level. This actually doesn’t seem like that much, doesn’t it? And for children, whose UL for iodine is much lower, it would be easier for them to get to that level. Interestingly, one analysis found that just over 50% of salts analyzed fell short of the recommended iodine content. So, it may take even more salt to reach this upper recommendation.

A Canadian nutrient analysis found that 15% of the population was at risk of excess iodine intake while 22% were at risk of insufficient levels. This means that the majority of people are neither exposed to too much or too little iodine from our food supply. Note that salt used in food production is not iodized, so any iodine coming from salt is that which is either added at home or in restaurants. It does appear that children are at higher risk of exceeding the iodine limit but this decreases with age (and likely their growing body size). Now this excess iodine could either be from table salt (you really shouldn’t be salting your kid’s food) or from iodine found naturally in our food supply (found in dairy, grains, meat, eggs, etc).  

As for the “health-hazardous” anti-clumping agents, it is true that table salt does contain this in order to keep the salt from caking together. Although many different agents can be used to prevent salt from clumping together, one common agent used is called yellow prussiate of soda or sodium ferrocyanide.

What? Did that just say “cyanide”?

I know, ferrocyanide sounds pretty effing scary and “health hazardous” doesn’t it? Despite its nefarious sounding name, when cyanide is combined with iron it is a very stable compound with low toxicity. The small amount that table salt contains should not be a worry, especially when consuming salt at recommended levels (which no more than 1/2 to 1 teaspoon per day).

“We cannot get the nutritional value out of simple table salt”

What nutritional value? The sodium? We certainly can get the nutritional value out of table salt. The problem with table salt is that we do get the sodium out of it. That’s why we, as a population, need to cut down on our salt intake. Table salt doesn’t have all the other minerals that Himalayan salt has but, again, that magical pink salt doesn’t really have a significant amount of minerals anyway.

It's “Natural and organic”

Organic salt is not a thing. Don't be fooled. 

Organic salt is not a thing. Don't be fooled. 

The term “natural” can have lots of different meanings but since Himalayan salt is a product mined from the ground and minimally processed, it can be called natural in my books.

Organic, on the other hand, it is not. Under governmental regulations, salt cannot be certified as organic. Salt cannot be organically grown, as it is a mineral.

Even if you use the word organic by its chemical definition of meaning “a carbon-based compound”, salt is not organic. Salt is an inorganic compound. That means that any salt, whether table salt, sea salt or Himalayan salt cannot be considered organic. Don’t be fooled.

 

It's “GMO-free”

There is no such thing as GMO salt, therefore, GMO-free salt is not a thing. This is pure marketing and fear mongering.

 


Himalayan salt has a number of healing properties including:

“Improves respiratory problems, including chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)”

It is said that spending time in a Himalayan Salt cave, a process called halotherapy, improves COPD. A review of the literature found that ultimately evidence was lacking and that it could not be promoted in the treatment of COPD.

It “balances the body’s pH”

Nope. No matter what minerals the salt contains, it won’t balance your body’s pH. You know what does balance your pH? Your kidneys and your lungs. No matter what you eat, and that includes special salt, a healthy person will maintain a blood pH of 7.4.

A Himalayan salt flush (i.e. salt water using pink Himalayan salt) can be used “to stimulate the peristalsis of the digestive organs, balance the stomach acid, support the production of digestive fluids in the liver and pancreas, regulate the metabolism and harmonize the acid-alkaline balance”

We already know the answer to the “harmonizing” of the acid-base balance. Nothing you eat will change the pH of your blood. If your pH is off, you have a medical problem. 

This salt-water flush (i.e. drinking salt water) will “stimulate peristalsis of digestive organs” and “support production of digestive fluids in the liver and pancreas”. Do you know what else does this? Eating food. Eating stimulates peristalsis (or the gentle squeezing of the digestive tract to move food through it). The presence of food also will trigger the release of fluids with digestive enzymes from our liver and pancreas. So maybe the salt flush does this (who knows?) but so does the simple act of eating.

“Pink Himalayan Salt improves sleep”

A number of pro-Himalayan salt websites claim that this salt improves sleep. Many of these sites backed up this information with a small 3 day study showing that those with low sodium intake (~ 500 mg per day) had 10% less sleep per day than those on a 2000 mg sodium diet. In addition to this, the pink-salt pushers cite that diet of 5000 mg of sodium per day (this is very high, by the way) had even less nighttime wake ups. Perhaps these individuals on high sodium diets did sleep better but they also were putting themselves at risk for hypertension and stroke.

Let’s put this level of sodium into perspective, 500 mg per day is very low. No, 500 mg per day is actually extremely low, and likely represents a fairly restrictive diet plan. For example, two slices of bread and a glass of 2% milk would give you roughly 500 mg of sodium. Outside of an experimental situation, this would be a very unrealistic, and perhaps dangerous, diet to maintain. This is probably why the study was only done over three days. This level of sodium is about one quarter, or 25%, of the current sodium recommendation. It’s no wonder people weren’t sleeping well, they probably were feeling pretty bad. For that reason, using this as “proof” that we need more salt in our diet (preferably Pink Himalayan salt, am I assuming) doesn’t seem justified. We, of course, need some sodium in our diet. Rarely do we have a problem with eating too little sodium or having low sodium levels in our blood, without a justified medical reason. And if your sodium levels are low, you probably should be seeking medical care.

“Increase hydration” and “Prevents muscle cramps”

These claims sort of go hand in hand. Sodium is needed for regulation of water balance (i.e. hydration) and muscle cramps can be caused by dehydration. So, yes, sodium is involved in keeping us adequately hydrated. That means the sodium in all sodium chloride-based salts can do this. The trace amounts of other elements (such as potassium and magnesium) in Himalayan salts probably aren’t enough to make that big of a difference in terms of hydration status.

“Lowers Blood Pressure”

I’m not sure how to react to this claim. I couldn’t find any literature showing that Himalayan salt lowers blood pressure and only literature relating high sodium diets to high blood pressure. Remember, Himalayan salt is still mostly sodium chloride, just like table salt. This seems like an outrageous claim to me.  

I could go on with the other publicized “health benefits” of Himalayan salt such as:

  • Reduces the signs of aging
  • Increases libido
  • Strengthens bones
  • Detoxifies the body of heavy metals
  • Regulates blood sugar
  • Helps get rid of cellulite and “flabby” deposits
  • Prevents varicose veins and spider veins on the legs and thighs
  • Reduces double chin (what??)
  • Generates hydroelectric energy in the cells of the body

….but I respect your time.

You may have already notice a pattern here - the health benefits are either bunk or are effects not exclusive to that of Himalayan salt. Some of the more valid health benefits noted will be seen with regular, table salt, as well.

Final Verdict?

There isn’t much to these touted health benefits. Himalayan salt is just a salt. It tastes salty and has a nice pink colour. And the salt lamps are pretty. If you like it, go ahead and buy it.

I really don’t care which salt you buy. Just don’t think a fancy salt will cure your ailments or that it’s healthy. The simple truth is that we all need to be conscious of our salt intake and aim to keep it to no more than 1 teaspoon per day. This includes all forms of salt, including pink Himalayan salt.

These two salts are more similar than different...and that's a fact. 

These two salts are more similar than different...and that's a fact.