Sorbitol, a polyol (sugar alcohol), is a bulk sweetener found in numerous food products. In addition to providing sweetness, it is an excellent humectant and texturizing agent. Sorbitol is about 60 percent as sweet as sucrose with less calories. It has a smooth mouthfeel with a sweet, cool and pleasant taste. It is non-cariogenic and may be useful to people with diabetes. Sorbitol has been safely used in processed foods for almost half a century. It is also used in other products, such as pharmaceuticals and cosmetics.
A French chemist first discovered sorbitol in the berries of the mountain ash in 1872. It occurs naturally in a wide variety of fruits and berries. Today it is commercially produced by the hydrogenation of glucose and is available in both liquid and crystalline form.
Facts About Sorbitol
- Provides bulk and sweetness with a clean, cool pleasant taste
- Provides fewer calories than sugar at 2.6 calories per gram compared to 4 calories per gram
- Is an excellent humectant, texturizing and anti-crystallizing agent
- Can be used in a wide variety of products, including sugar-free candies, chewing gums, and sugar free foods such as frozen desserts and baked goods
- Does not contribute to the formation of dental caries
- May be useful as an alternative to sugar for people with diabetes on the advice of their health care providers
Does Not Promote Tooth Decay
Sorbitol is resistant to metabolism by oral bacteria which break down sugars and starches to release acids that may lead to cavities or erode tooth enamel. Sorbitol is also non-cariogenic. The usefulness of sorbitol, as an alternative to sugars and as part of a comprehensive program including proper dental hygiene has been recognized by the American Dental Association. The US FDA has approved the use of a “does not promote tooth decay” health claim in labeling for sugar-free foods that contain sorbitol. Products sweetened with sorbitol may be labeled safe for teeth in some other countries.
Reduced Calorie Alternative To Sugar
Absorption of sorbitol by the human body is slow, allowing part of the ingested sorbitol to reach the large intestine where metabolism yields fewer calories. Therefore, unlike sugar which contributes four calories per gram, the caloric contribution of sorbitol is about 2.6 calories per gram. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has stated it does not object to the use of this value. The lower caloric value of sorbitol and other polyols is recognized in other countries as well. For example, the European Union has provided a Nutritional Labeling Directive stating that polyols, including sorbitol, have a caloric value of 2.4 calories per gram.
Sorbitol’s safety is supported by numerous studies reported in the scientific literature. The Joint Food and Agriculture Organization/World Health Organization Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA) has reviewed the safety data and concluded that sorbitol is safe. JECFA has established an acceptable daily intake (ADI) for sorbitol of “not specified,” meaning no limits are placed on its use. An ADI “not specified” is the safest category in which JECFA can place a food ingredient. JECFA’s decisions are often adopted by many small countries which do not have their own agencies to review food additive safety.
The Scientific Committee for Food of the European Union (EU) published a comprehensive assessment of sweeteners in 1985, concluding that sorbitol is acceptable for use, also without setting a limit on its use.
In developing the current U.S. food and drug regulation which affirms sorbitol as Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS), the safety data were carefully evaluated by qualified scientists of the Select Committee on GRAS Substances selected by the Life Sciences Office of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB). In the opinion of the Select Committee, there was no evidence demonstrating a hazard where sorbitol was used at current levels or at levels that might be expected in the future. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s regulation for sorbitol requires the following label statement for foods whose reasonably foreseeable consumption may result in the daily ingestion of 50 grams of sorbitol: “Excess consumption may have a laxative effect.”
Multiple Ingredient Approach to Calorie Control
Sorbitol works well with other ingredients and may be synergistic with other sweeteners. This means the combination of the sweeteners is sweeter than the sum of the individual sweeteners and results in synergistic blends which provide taste, economic and stability advantages.