If you like sugar-free gum, candy or packaged desserts, chances are good that you've consumed foods that contain sorbitol. The same goes if you eat an apple a day. Sorbitol can be found in surprising places — both whole and processed foods — and it can affect your body in different ways.
Where Sorbitol Resides
Sorbitol is found naturally in a wide variety of fruits and vegetables. Fruits with sorbitol include blackberries, raspberries, strawberries, apples, cherries and peaches, according to the International Food Information Council (IFIC) Foundation.
Sorbitol can also be manufactured; it's a type of sugar alcohol that's commonly used in low-carb and reduced-sugar foods, says the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Other sugar alcohols found in processed foods include hydrogenated starch hydrolysates (HSH), isomalt, lactitol, maltitol, mannitol and xylitol, according to the IFIC Foundation.
Sugar alcohols are a popular sugar substitute because they have only a third to half as many calories as sugar, according to Yale New Haven Hospital. Like all products with sugar alcohols, foods containing sorbitol take the body more time to convert to glucose than foods containing cane sugar, require less insulin to be metabolized and may have a smaller impact on blood sugar levels, the hospital explains.
For people with diabetes, sorbitol and other sugar alcohols may be better sweeteners than regular cane sugar because they have fewer calories than sugar and less of an effect on blood sugar, according to the American Diabetes Association (ADA). However, many processed foods with sorbitol are still high in carbohydrates, calories and fat. This can contribute to weight gain and elevated blood sugar.
The best way to see if foods with sorbitol are healthier than products made with regular sugar is to check the label, says ADA. In particular, foods with sorbitol that have more calories or more saturated and trans fats may not be the way to go. On the other hand, as long as foods with sorbitol don't pack in the calories and fats, they may be a good way for people with diabetes to cut back on regular sugar.
For dieters and people counting carbs, foods containing sorbitol can also be a way to satisfy a sweet tooth without all the calories of regular sugar. However, be aware that foods with sorbitol can be labeled as "sugar-free" or "no sugar added," even though sugar alcohols aren't zero-calorie artificial sweeteners.
Side Effects of Sorbitol
The same digestive process that makes foods containing sorbitol impact blood sugar less than regular sugar does may also trigger some unpleasant side effects if sorbitol is eaten in excessive amounts, according to the IFIC Foundation. Foods containing sorbitol are digested slowly and incompletely as they pass through the small intestine, helping to reduce the calories metabolized as the remaining sorbitol travels on to the large intestine.
This process helps minimize an increase in blood sugar from sorbitol-containing foods. However, as sorbitol accumulates in the large intestine, it can cause bloating, gas and diarrhea.
Sorbitol also isn't good for kids who have dietary fructose intolerance, which is a genetic metabolic disorder that causes bloating, gas and diarrhea because the intestines can't absorb fructose. Children who can't tolerate fructose should also avoid high-fructose corn syrup and sorbitol, according to the Cleveland Clinic.
Sorbitol can increase the risk for these digestive issues when people consume just 10 to 50 grams a day, says Samantha Heller, RD, a senior clinical nutritionist at NYU Langone Health in New York City.
"People with irritable bowel syndrome or other gastrointestinal issues may want to avoid foods with added sorbitol or foods high in sorbitol," Heller says. The best way to get the sweetness of sorbitol, she says, is from whole fruits, not packaged foods.
"Real food is best," Heller says. "If we are following a balanced, more plant-based eating pattern, then, for most of us, there is no need to seek out foods with added sugar alcohols or non-nutritive sweeteners."
Read more: Side Effects of Zylitol and Sorbitol
- Samantha Heller, MS, RD, senior clinical nutritionist, NYU Langone Health, New York City
- Yale New Haven Hospital: “Eat Any Sugar Alcohol Lately?”
- American Diabetes Association: “Sugar Alcohols”
- International Food Information Council Foundation: “What Is Sorbitol?”
- Cleveland Clinic: “Could Fructose Be Causing Your Child’s Tummy Troubles?”
- Food and Drug Administration: "Interactive Nutrition Facts Label - Sugar Alcohols"
- IFIC Foundation: "Sugar Alcohols Fact Sheet"