Table salt faces severe competition from Himalayan pink, sea and rock salt

Updated: Oct 20, 2019, 07:52 IST | Gitanjali Chandrasekharan | Mumbai

Pristine white, flowing table salt is getting dropped in favour of coarse variants. Here's why.

Natural sea salt
Natural sea salt

A year ago, Rupal Shah, 51, made a change to her monthly grocery list. The Khar resident replaced iodised table salt, a staple in most Indian homes, with Himalayan rock salt. One of the triggers for the switch was that husband Nihaal, who has a family history of high blood pressure, showed the first signs of the disease during a check-up. Shah, who heads management at Fort art gallery, Chemould Prescott Road, and is visiting faculty at Rizvi College of Architecture, says that her parents had made the switch from iodised table salt seven years ago, and she saw the drop in their blood pressure levels. A year down the line, Nihaal's BP is in the healthy range.

Earlier this year, 91-year-old Mumbai-based businessman Shiv Shankar Gupta forced several of us to ask, is the salt you are eating right for you? He hit headlines for his claim that salt produced by top firms has high levels of potassium ferrocyanide. The chemical, says Gupta, is harmful. While Gupta did not wish to speak to mid-day for this article, he made available the literature he has researched and written, including reports from American West Analytical Laboratories in the US, where he sent samples of commonly used table salt including Tata and Sambhar, for testing. The reports state that the levels of potassium ferrocyanide are higher than stated "reporting limits", except in the case of Hindustan pink salt, Puro Healthy Salt and Tata Salt Rock Salt.

Himalayan pink salt powder
Himalayan pink salt powder

Potassium ferrocyanide is an anti-caking agent that gives refined salt the free-flowing quality that we now take for granted. However, it does not decompose into cyanide in the body, as some believe, and is considered non-toxic. Various studies have shown that the human body doesn't absorb potassium ferrocyanides. In rats, the lethal dosage was pegged at 6,400 milligram per kilogram. A study published in the European Food Safety Journal in 2018, titled: Re-evaluation of sodium ferrocyanide (E 535), potassium ferrocyanide (E 536) and calcium ferrocyanide (E 538) as food additives, states that a daily intake of 0.03 mg/kg of body weight is acceptable.

However, at toxic levels, it causes irritation of the gastrointestinal tract, causing symptoms such as cramping, diarrhea, nausea, and vomiting. Potassium ferrocyanide is also known to negatively affect the respiratory system. Maria Jenita, a consultant at Chennai Testing Private Ltd., a lab that is consulted by firms wishing to check levels of potassium ferrocyanide for nutritional labelling and ingredient testing, says, "Everyone won't react [to high levels of potassium ferrocyanide]. However, those who are weak in certain nutrients, will be affected, even if levels are small." When asked if these effects will show immediately, Jenita says, "No, the effects are long term. People may develop allergies or hormone-related diseases or auto-immune disorders."

Himalayan rock salt granules
Himalayan rock salt granules

Unlike most of us, Goa-based Dr Reyna Sequeira knows how the salt that we consume is made. The associate professor of sociology at the Government College of Arts, Science and Commerce, in 2013 authored a book titled As Dear as Salt: The Story of Neglect and Decay in a Traditional Occupation in Goa.

Sequeira says, her fascination with how salt is made began when she would drive past saltpans on her way to Goa University. When time came to work on her MA dissertation, she pitched the idea of understanding the lives of saltmakers. For a year, she worked with them, understanding the conditions they operated in and how salt is made. Two decades later, when she had to work on a PhD thesis, she decided to revisit the friends she had stayed in touch with over the years.

Sendha namak
Sendha namak

"The water in salt pan lands is boiling hot. When you dip your feet in them you get sores. The government is not paying heed to the working conditions unlike farmland, since salt making is considered as an industry i.e salt is prepared from sea water and the direct rays of the sun, salt pan workers have no right to ownership, because it was decreed that one is just taking a product that's already available on the land," says Sequeira over the phone from Benaulim.

On the process of making salt, Sequeira adds that sea water is first let into one bed of land, cleaned and then let into a second bed and then a third. When the water drains overnight, crystals are formed. This is sea salt that we consume. Sequeira who has visited saltpan lands in Mumbai, Mira Road and Gujarat, says that companies pick up this salt and send it to factories where it undergoes a refining process, which also includes fortifying it with iodine.

Rupal and Nihaal Shah switched from table salt to Himalayan rock salt, and say Nihaal's blood pressure is now within healthy range. Pic/Shadab Khan
Rupal and Nihaal Shah switched from table salt to Himalayan rock salt, and say Nihaal's blood pressure is now within healthy range. Pic/Shadab Khan

The idea of iodising salt, Sequeira calls "hogwash". "If the government wanted to give us iodine, why not just make it mandatory for people to take a dose in the morning and evening?" she asks. Juhu-based dietician and Reebok certified fitness expert, Sheela B Tanna, agrees. At her home, table salt has been missing for 20 years. She uses rock salt, sea salt or Himalayan pink. "Most people think alternatives are expensive, but that's because they see packets in supermarkets instead of buying it by the kilo at the kirana store." She made the switch when she felt that using a healthier salt could improve health in a polluted city. "Pink salt provides electrolytes to the body. A small pinch can help with muscle cramps and soreness," she adds. With two children — 20 and 22 years old — she wasn't worried about iodine deficiency. "You can get iodine from other dietary sources, such as fish and dairy products, cereal, chapati and rice."

Diabetologist Pradeep Gadge, says it is only those who already have an iodine deficiency who need to consume it via supplements. However, iodine deficiency is no longer common, thanks in most part due to the salt idodisation policy implemented several decades ago by the government. "Iodine deficiency happens in hilly terrain where due to the constant rain, iodine is not retained in the soil. Therefore, the local produce will be iodine-deficient." He clarifies that hypothyroidism does not mean iodine deficiency. It's an auto-immune thyroid problem caused due to lifestyle, endocrine disruptors in our diet, pollution, stress and inadequate sleeping hours.

Professor Reyna Sequeira, who has researched saltpans in Mumbai and Gujarat, argues against the salt needs iodizing theory
Professor Reyna Sequeira, who has researched saltpans in Mumbai and Gujarat, argues against the salt needs iodizing theory

Are other salts a viable option? Sendha namak, or sindhav namak is salt mined from the Himalayas in Pakistan, while sea salt comes from the saltpan lands. While Himalayan pink salt is available in the market in both granular and powdered form, sea salt is usually seen only in the granular form and is easily available at the kiranawala. Gadge says that he often prescribes sendha namak to diabetic patients.

Because it is granular, patients often end up using lesser amounts, which improves markers such as blood pressure. He adds that not just with iodine, salt is also fortified with iron and in some areas—for example in Gujarat where Filariasis or elephants foot is common—with deethyl carbazine, a known drug. Yet, if you have none of these diseases or deficiencies, can you consume a more organic salt? Yes, says Gadge.

Fitness instructor Sheela B Tanna hasn't used table salt for 20 years. She says a pinch of pink salt, packed with electrolytes, can help with muscle soreness. Pic/Ashish Raje
Fitness instructor Sheela B Tanna hasn't used table salt for 20 years. She says a pinch of pink salt, packed with electrolytes, can help with muscle soreness. Pic/Ashish Raje

Sequeira who has been consuming locally-made salt and gifts packs to friends traveling abroad as organic salt is in demand there, says, there's more research to prove that sea salt can be healthy. She quotes a study titled Bacteria from Salt Pans: A Potential Resource of Antibacterial Metabolites by Tonima Kamat and Savita Kerkar, Department of Biotechnology, Goa University, Taleigao Plateau, published in 2011. The study states: Our results indicate that salt pan bacteria from Batim and Ribandar have an interesting antibiotic producing profile and hence can be looked upon as potential resource of antibacterial metabolites. Very few reports are available on the antimicrobial potential of the cultures isolated from Indian salt pans."

0.03
mg of potassium ferrocyanide that's safe per kg of body weight

Iodine is essential micronutrient required by body: Tata Salt spokesperson

"Iodine is another essential micronutrient that is required in a small quantity by the body, every single day. As part of the Government of India's efforts to address the issue of micronutrient deficiency in the country and tackle Iodine Deficiency Disorder (IDD), Tata Salt has partnered with the government in this initiative from the year 1983, and played a pivotal role in the battle against iodine deficiency. The recent allegations made against the purity and health benefits of Tata Salt are totally false and misleading and being made by vested interests. India is one among many countries including the United States of America, European Union, Australia and New Zealand that have allowed the use of PFC in salt. The level allowed by the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI), an independent statutory authority, under Ministry of Health & Family Welfare, Govt. of India, is the lowest among these jurisdictions (10 mg per kg)."

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