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 one-third fewer 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.
Sorbitol has been affirmed as GRAS (Generally Recognized As Safe) by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and is approved for use by the European Union and numerous countries around the world, including Australia, Canada and Japan.
In the United States, sorbitol is provided by a number of manufacturers, including Archer Daniels Midland, Roquette America, Inc. and SPI Polyols, Inc.
Sorbitol is used as a humectant in many types of products for protection against loss of moisture content. The moisture-stabilizing and textural properties of sorbitol are used in the production of confectionery, baked goods and chocolate where products tend to become dry or harden. Its moisture-stabilizing action protects these products from drying and maintains their initial freshness during storage.
Sorbitol is very stable and chemically unreactive. It can withstand high temperatures and does not participate in Maillard (browning) reactions. This is an advantage, for example, in the production of cookies where a fresh color with no appearance of browning is desired. Sorbitol also combines well with other food ingredients such as sugars, gelling agents, proteins and vegetable fats. It functions well in many food products such as chewing gums, candies, frozen desserts, cookies, cakes, icings and fillings as well as oral care products, including toothpaste and mouthwash.
Polyols, including sorbitol, are resistant to metabolism by oral bacteria which break down sugars and starches to release acids that may lead to cavities or erode tooth enamel. They are, therefore, non-cariogenic. The usefulness of polyols, including sorbitol, as alternatives to sugars and as part of a comprehensive program including proper dental hygiene has been recognized by the American Dental Association. The FDA has approved the use of a “does not promote tooth decay” health claim in labeling for sugar-free foods that contain sorbitol or other polyols.
Control of blood glucose, lipids and weight are the three major goals of diabetes management today. Sorbitol is slowly absorbed. Therefore, when sorbitol is used, the rise in blood glucose and the insulin response associated with the ingestion of glucose is significantly reduced. The reduced caloric value (2.6 calories per gram versus 4.0 for sugar) of sorbitol is consistent with the objective of weight control. Products sweetened with sorbitol in place of sugar may be useful in providing a wider variety of reduced calorie and sugar free choices to people with diabetes.
Recognizing that diabetes is complex and requirements for its management may vary between individuals, the usefulness of sorbitol should be discussed between individuals and their health care providers. Foods sweetened with sorbitol may contain other ingredients which also contribute calories and other nutrients. These must be considered in meal planning.
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. For a product to qualify as “reduced calorie” in the United States, it must have at least a 25 percent reduction in calories; to qualify as “light” it must have a one-third reduction. Sorbitol is, therefore, useful in formulating “reduced calorie” and “light” products.
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 all 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. In developing the current U.S. food and drug regulation which affirms sorbitol as 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.”
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.
Americans continue to demand good tasting products with less calories and fat. The development and use of a variety of safe low-calorie sweeteners, bulking agents, fat replacers and other low-calorie ingredients help meet this consumer demand. The availability of several low-calorie ingredients allows food manufacturers to choose the most appropriate ingredient, or combination of ingredients, for a given product. 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.
Sorbitol’s good taste, reduced caloric value, versatility and other advantages facilitate its use in a wide variety of products. With the increasing demand for products reduced in calories or fat, sorbitol’s use should increase as well.
For more information visit polyol.org.