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.
Read: Our early love affair with salt
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.