Sorbitol is a sugar alcohol that can be made synthetically or derived from natural sources. Sorbitol is found naturally in a variety of fruits including pears, peaches, prunes, cherries, plums, berries and apples as well as their juice. It's also added to food and confectionary products as a substitute for sugar and is a common ingredient in sugar-free candy, gum and low-carb and diabetic foods. It's the most frequent sweetener used in sugar-free chewing gum.
Contrary to popular belief, sorbitol in food products has calories, although less than an equivalent amount of sugar. Sorbitol contains about 2.6 calories per gram, while sugar has 4 calories per gram. Unlike sugar, sorbitol is only partially absorbed by the body and has less impact on blood sugar levels than sugar does. This makes it a diabetic-friendly alternative to sugar not only for diabetics but for people trying to lose weight. Sorbitol also adds texture to foods and keeps them moist - and it's compatible with a wide range of food ingredients.
Sorbitol not only has benefits as a sweetener, it's used medicinally too. It's sometimes combined with kayexalate to lower potassium levels when blood levels are too high, a situation that can be life-threatening. It's also prescribed as a laxative. Sorbitol works by drawing water into the large intestine. This helps to soften stools that are too firm and stimulate bowel movements in people who are constipated. The reason prune juice works well as a laxative is because of the sorbitol it contains. Unfortunately, the benefits sorbitol has for people with constipation can be problematic for those with normal bowel function. People who consume too many foods sweetened with sorbitol may experience abdominal bloating, cramping and loose stools.
Sorbitol is also an ingredient in some cosmetic and personal care products. In skin care products, it acts as a humectant. Humectants draw water to the surface of the skin from the environment when there's adequate moisture in the air. This helps skin retain water, especially when combined with a moisturizing ingredient called an occlusive that reduces moisture loss. The combination of a humectant and an occlusive in products makes an ideal moisturizer. Sorbitol is also used as a thickener in some cosmetic and personal care products and can be used to give a sweeter taste to toothpaste without adding sugar, which increases the risk of dental caries. In fact, research shows that sorbitol in toothpaste and chewing gum may actually lower the risk of dental caries.
Is sorbitol safe? As a sweetener in food products, sorbitol appears to be safe, although it may aggravate some intestinal conditions like irritable bowel syndrome. People who consume large amounts of sorbitol-sweetened products may experience abdominal cramping, diarrhea and weight loss. Children are particularly susceptible to experiencing intestinal upset and diarrhea when they eat or drink foods that contain sorbitol, probably because of their lower body weight. Even though sorbitol is sometimes used with kayexalate to treat high potassium levels in people with kidney disease, the combination can sometimes cause colon inflammation and damage. There doesn't appear to be any long-term safety issues when healthy people use sorbitol in reasonable amounts. The United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) classifies sorbitol as "generally recognized as safe." It also appears to be safe in the quantities found in cosmetic and skin care products.
All in all, sorbitol has a variety of uses medicinally, cosmetically and as an ingredient in food products. Its ability to function as a humectant makes it beneficial for keeping foods moist, and its natural sweetening ability makes it a lower calorie alternative to sugar for overweight people and diabetics. Medicinally, it acts as a laxative and helps to prevent dental caries when people chew gum sweetened with sorbitol rather than sugar-sweetened gum. It also acts as a humectant in cosmetic and personal care products by drawing water from the environment to the surface of the skin. When combined with other ingredients in skin creams that hold in water, it's a good moisturizing ingredient. Sorbitol is not usually irritating to skin, and allergic reactions are possible but not common.