- Sorbitol is a type of carbohydrate called a sugar alcohol, or polyol.
- Sorbitol contains about one-third fewer calories than sugar and is 60 percent as sweet.
- Sorbitol occurs naturally in a variety of berries and fruits (e.g., apples and blackberries).
- Sorbitol is also commercially produced and is the most commonly used polyol in the U.S.
- Sorbitol’s safety has been confirmed by global health authorities.
- Sorbitol, when eaten in excessive amounts, can cause gastrointestinal discomfort.
THE BASICS OF SORBITOL
Sorbitol (pronounced sore-bih-tall) is a type of carbohydrate called a sugar alcohol, or polyol, which are water-soluble compounds that occur naturally in many fruits and vegetables. Sorbitol is also commercially produced from glucose for use in packaged foods and beverages to provide sweetness, texture and moisture retention.
Sorbitol’s safety has been reviewed and confirmed by health authorities around the world, including the World Health Organization, the European Union, and the countries Australia, Canada and Japan. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) also recognizes sorbitol as safe.
While the safety of sorbitol and other sugar alcohols is well-documented, some sugar alcohols, when eaten in excessive amounts, can cause gastrointestinal discomfort, including gas, bloating and diarrhea. As a result, foods that contain the sugar alcohols sorbitol or mannitol must include a warning on their label about potential laxative effects.
SORBITOL AND HEALTH
Like most sugar alcohols, sorbitol is neither as sweet as nor as calorie-dense as sugar. Sorbitol is about 60 percent as sweet as sugar and has about 35 percent fewer calories per gram (2.6 calories for sorbitol compared to 4 calories for sugar).
But sorbitol’s contributions to health go beyond calories. Studies on sorbitol metabolism date back as far as the 1920s, when researchers began testing sorbitol as a potential carbohydrate substitute in people with diabetes. Since that time, the benefits of sugar alcohols and how the body uses them have become better understood. Two areas where sugar alcohols are known for their positive effects are oral health and impact on blood sugar.
Sugar alcohols, including sorbitol, have been shown to benefit oral health in several ways, primarily because they are noncariogenic: in other words, they don’t contribute to cavity formation. The act of chewing also protects teeth from cavity-causing bacteria by promoting the flow of saliva. The increased saliva and noncariogenic properties (along with sweetness) are why sugar alcohols (sorbitol and xylitol) are used in sugar-free chewing gum.
Some sugar alcohols like erythritol and xylitol inhibit the growth of oral bacteria (Streptococcus mutans) that can cause cavities. Sorbitol can be fermented, albeit at a slower rate than sugar, by some but not all oral bacteria. Therefore, sorbitol is not as protective against cavities as some sugar alcohols, but has been shown to decrease cavities compared with sugar. Because of these attributes, the FDA recognizes sorbitol and other sugar alcohols as beneficial to oral health.
Like other sugar alcohols (with the exception of erythritol), sorbitol contains calories in the form of carbohydrate. Sorbitol is slowly and incompletely absorbed from our small intestine. The remaining sorbitol continues to the large intestine, where its metabolism yields fewer calories. Because of this, sorbitol consumption (compared with an equal amount of sugar) reduces insulin secretion, which helps keep blood glucose levels lower as a result.
There are no formal recommendations for sorbitol intake. Fermentation of sorbitol in the large intestine can create gastrointestinal discomfort including bloating, gas and diarrhea. But these effects are not the same for everyone. Therefore, the FDA requires a label statement regarding potential laxative effects for foods that might lead to eating 50 grams of sorbitol in a day.
For those following a low Fermentable Oligosaccharides Disaccharides Monosaccharides And Polyols (FODMAP) diet, food sources of sorbitol are monitored because sorbitol is a type of polyol.
FOOD SOURCES OF SORBITOL
Sugar alcohols are naturally produced in various plants as a result of photosynthesis. Sorbitol is found naturally in berries like blackberries, raspberries and strawberries, and other fruits such as apples, apricots, avocados, cherries, peaches and plums.
In addition to whole foods, sorbitol is commercially produced to help reduce calories from sugars in baked goods, chocolates, frozen desserts, hard candies, sugar-free chewing gum and snack bars.