Sorbitol is a ubiquitous sweetener available in bulk quantities and used in many of today's food products. It is a sugar alcohol (polyol) that is very pleasant to eat, with a cool and delicious taste, while leaving a good feeling inside the mouth. Compared with sucrose, sorbitol provides a sweetness of about 60% but also has a lower proportion of calories.
It can be found in nature but it's normally mass produced and has been used without any issues by the food processing industry for more than 50 years. It doesn't cause cancer and is one of the sweet agents that can be consumed by diabetic patients. Besides being sweet, it also moisturizes the skin and serves as a great texturizing agent, which makes it a useful ingredient in pharmaceuticals and cosmetics and other non-food products.
Sorbitol has been discovered by a French chemist in 1872, in the fruits of a plant named mountain ash. However, it can be found in nature in many fruits such as apples, pears or peaches. Industrially, it is normally made from corn by the hydrogenation of glucose and can be produced in both a solid and a liquid state.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration classifies sorbitol as GRAS (Generally Recognized As Safe). It has been approved by similar agencies from countries all around the world, including the European Union, Canada, Australia, China or Japan.
Sorbitol is very useful as a humectant and moisturizing agent but must be used with care because of its action mechanism. Through a process called osmosis, sorbitol gets water from the air when applied on skin and this keeps it moisturized. However, if the air is extremely dry, it will instead get the water from the skin and cause the opposite effect. This property makes it useful in the cosmetic industry as an addition to various transparent gels. It allows them to preserve their water content, since they would dry out otherwise. It is also added to a wide range of other cosmetic products. Since its properties are quite similar to the ones of glycerin and it is cheaper than it, sorbitol can often be found in glycerin soaps. Other products that might have a sorbitol content are: shampoos, mouthwash, toothpastes, aftershave lotions and baby care products.
Due to its ability to act as a humectant and texturizing agent, sorbitol is often used as an ingredient in chocolate, bakery products, confectionery and other sweets. Sorbitol prevents them from becoming dry, maintaining their freshness and greatly increasing shelf life and storage time.
Another reason while sorbitol can be found in so many products is its chemical stability. It has a very low reactivity and does not enter Maillard reactions even at very high temperatures. This is very valuable since it ensures that cookies for example will keep their fresh aspect in time.
Sorbitol can be combined with all the usual food ingredients, since it doesn't react with any of them. It can be mixed without any problem with other sweeteners, vegetable fats, gelling agents or proteins. This is a big advantage and allows sorbitol to be an ingredient of cookies, cakes, icings and fillings, toothpaste, chewing gums, candies, frozen desserts and mouthwash.
Sorbitol is very valuable as a sweetener because it has several advantages over sugar. It is metabolized slowly and not completely absorbed by the body, thus being a type of carbohydrate that doesn't increase the level of blood glucose, a big plus for people who suffer from diabetes. It doesn't contribute to tooth decay and also has a lower content of calories compared to regular sugar.
In nature, sorbitol (an alternative name is glucitol) is generated after a chemical reaction that modifies the structure of sugar. It can be found in numerous fruits like plums, peaches, raspberries, apricots, cherries and blueberries.
Sorbitol only contains around 2.6 calories per gram, compared to four per gram in sugar, which is very useful for weight control. This is because it is a type of alcohol that the body is slow to process, so it get transported to the large intestine where it results in fewer calories.
Because sorbitol is so slowly absorbed, glucose in the blood increases just a bit, and insulin response is diminished significantly. This is excellent in the treatment of diabetes, since modern diabetes management focuses on three major goals: reducing the levels of blood glucose, the intake of lipids and decreasing weight. The lower caloric value of sorbitol is also very important here. This gives the food industry an option to provide numerous products for people with diabetes that use sorbitol instead of other sweeteners and offer a healthier choice with lower calories and no sugar.
However, if you suffer from diabetes, don't consume sorbitol without an advice from your doctor. Diabetes is a very complex disease and every person reacts in a different way. Your doctor is the only one who can tell you if sorbitol can help you. Keep in mind that products with sorbitol also include other ingredients, some of which could be harmful, try not to forget that when you add them to your diet.
Sorbitol is an excellent choice when it comes to teeth health. Like all other polyols, it can't be processed by the bacteria living inside our mouth. These bacteria are able to metabolize sugars and other starches, breaking them down into other components. Some of these are acids that attack teeth enamel and cause cavities or even cancer. This has been validated by research and endorsed by the American Dental Association, which recommends sorbitol and other polyols as an alternative to sugar as part of their push for better oral hygiene. Sugar-free foods that contain sorbitol can also be labelled with the text "does not promote tooth decay", as approved by the FDA.
Sorbitol has numerous commercial and industrial uses. It is widely found as a sweetener agent in ice cream, sugar-free candies, gums, diet drinks and cookies. Because of its advantages, it is also used in some sweet anti-cough liquids. Since it doesn't attack teeth, it is an important ingredient in the manufacture of oral health products like mouthwash and toothpaste.
It has found many uses in the cosmetic industry as well. Its ability to preserve moisture and remain refractive makes it a popular choice for gels and other similar products that must stay perfectly transparent and clear. Many producers include it in their cosmetics in order to act as a humectant. Sorbitol is able to prevent them from drying, which is crucial for cosmetics like lipsticks, blushes and base foundation. Because of the same property, it is used in the cigarettes industry to keep tobacco from becoming dry.
Sorbitol can make a distinction between the E. coli bacteria and other strains of the E. coli species, which makes it the ideal test culture for bacteria. Another industrial use is in a mix with sucrose and sodium polyphosphates. This mixture has an anti-freezing effect and is used in the production of surimi, the crab-flavoured fish paste prepared from Alaskan Pollock, Atlantic cod and other types of fish.
There are also a few medical uses. The most important one is as a laxative, an effect caused by its very slow blood absorption. Because of its slow digestion and humectant properties, sorbitol is able to accumulate water as it travels through the bowels, which in turn moisturizes the stool and allows it to come out easily. This is one of the reasons why prune juice, which is rich in sorbitol, can be a very effective laxative. Even in ancient medicine, prune juice was well-known as a cure for constipation and bowel irregularity and an overall stimulant of the digestive system.
Another medical use is in the treatment of hyperkalaemia. Mixed with a substance known as kayexalate, it has the ability to remove excess potassium ions and help people who suffer from this disease. It can also act as a general energizer for the body and it has been noticed that sorbitol consumption can improve muscle strength. When applied directly on the skin, it can be a simple cure in the treatment of eczema, rashes or other similar issues.
Sorbitol doesn't often cause side effects but it must be consumed with care, avoiding very high doses. Large quantities of the product are known to cause digestive problems, abdominal pain, nausea, diarrhea or excessive flatulence. In time, these symptoms can develop into abnormal stool with a black color, in which case you should go see a doctor.
Since the human body can't metabolize sorbitol because it lacks the proper enzymes, it is dangerous for people with a slow metabolism. Besides the usual digestive issues, it can develop long term or even chronic metabolic problems and abdominal pain.
Due to the humectant properties of sorbitol, medical references also mention the risk of developing dehydration, electrolyte imbalance, dry mouth and allergic reactions.
Sorbitol overdoses can cause severe gastric problems and side effects like anal irritation or bleeding, stomach cramps, dizziness and irritability. Since this compound attracts water, abnormally high doses can lead to eye cataract. Also, long-term ingestion can impair nutrition and stop the absorption of critical vitamins, like B12.
Massive amounts of sorbitol can cause stomach pain and other digestive disorders, even to healthy people. However, people with special sensitivities like gastro-intestinal syndromes or irritable bowels must be particularly careful. Even small amounts of sorbitol can cause them severe pain and complications. Also, people who have enzyme deficiencies inherited from their family, or other similar problems like intolerance to fructose, have to be careful and avoid consuming too much sorbitol.
People allergic to sorbitol can have severe problems like seizures, breathing difficulties, rhythm abnormalities and irregular heartbeat. However, such cases are extremely rare. As with many other compounds, pregnant or nursing women should ask for advice from their doctor before adding sorbitol to their diet.