Sorbitol: helpful for diabetics?

Sorbitol is a low-calorie sweetener chemically extracted from glucose

It is used as an alternative to sugar in a range of foods, including low-calorie and sugar-free foods, as well as pharmaceutical and oral health products, such as toothpaste and chewing gum.

Sorbitol has less of an effect on blood sugar levels than sugar, which can benefit people at risk of developing diabetes.

It has the look and feel of table sugar, but with 60% of sugar's sweetness and 30% fewer calories (2.6kcal/g, compared to 4kcal/g for sugar).

When eaten, sorbitol has a mouth-cooling sensation, with virtually no aftertaste. It also helps food stay moist, making it a useful ingredient in the production of confectionery, baked goods and chocolate.

Sorbitol is a polyol – a type of carbohydrate generally manufactured from sugar. Polyols are banned from soft drinks in the EU because of their laxative effect.

Sorbitol naturally occurs in certain foods, such as apples and pears; stoned fruit, such as peaches and apricots; and dried fruit, such as prunes and raisins.

When ingested, sorbitol is slowly and only partially absorbed in the intestine and converted into fructose in the liver. Too much sorbitol in the intestine can cause water retention, resulting in diarrhoea.

If consumed in large amounts, it can cause side effects such as bloating and gas. Unabsorbed sorbitol is broken down into carbon dioxide and then eliminated.

The EU's Scientific Committee on Food stated in a 1985 report that ingesting 50g a day of sorbitol causes diarrhoea. Foods that are made up of more than 10% sorbitol must carry a warning that excessive consumption may have a laxative effect.

A 2011 report by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) on the health claims of polyols, including sorbitol, concluded that they promote dental health by helping to neutralise plaque acidity on teeth and repairing tooth enamel. 

The EFSA also accepted the claim that polyols have a lesser effect on blood sugar levels than sugar, due to their slow absorption rate. This could benefit people with impaired glucose tolerance, which is a risk factor for diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

The EFSA has not set an upper limit on daily intake of sorbitol, meaning there is no health risk from normal consumption levels.

Acceptable daily intake: none specified.

Find out what the latest scientific evidence says about these other common artificial sweeteners:

For more information, read: The truth about sweeteners

Page last reviewed: 13/04/2016

Next review due: 13/04/2018

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