The Uses of Sorbitol

As is the case with other sugar alcohols, foods containing sorbitol can cause gastrointestinal distress. Sorbitol can be used as a laxative when taken orally or as an enema. Sorbitol works as alaxative by drawing water into the large intestine, stimulating bowel movements.

Medical Application

As is the case with other sugar alcohols, foods containing sorbitol can cause gastrointestinal distress. Sorbitol can be used as a laxative when taken orally or as an enema. Sorbitol works as a laxative by drawing water into the large intestine, stimulating bowel movements. Sorbitol has been determined safe for use by the elderly, although it is not recommended without the advice of a doctor. Sorbitol is found in some dried fruits and may contribute to the laxative effects of prunes. Sorbitol was first discovered in the fresh juice of mountain ash (Sorbus aucuparia) berries in 1872. It is also found in the fruits of apples, plums, pears, cherries, dates, peaches and apricots.

Health Care, Food, and Cosmetic

Sorbitol often is used in modern cosmetics as a humectant and thickener. It is also used in mouthwash and toothpaste. Some transparent gels can be made only with sorbitol, because of its high refractive index. Sorbitol is used as a cryoprotectant additive (mixed with sucrose and sodium polyphosphates) in the manufacture of surimi, a processed fish paste. It is also used as a humectant in some cigarettes. Beyond its use as a sugar substitute in reduced-sugar foods, Sorbitol is also used as a humectant in cookies and low-moisture foods like peanut butter and fruit preserves. In baking, it is also valuable because it acts as a plasticizer, and slows down the staling process.

As Sweetener

Sorbitol is a sugar substitute, and when used in food it has the INS number and E number 420. Sorbitol is about 60% as sweet as sucrose (table sugar). Sorbitol is referred to as a nutritive sweetener because it provides dietary energy: 2.6 kilocalories (11 kilojoules) per gram versus the average 4 kilocalories (17 kilojoules) for carbohydrates. It is often used in diet foods (including diet drinks and ice cream), mints, cough syrups, and sugar-free chewing gum. Most bacteria are unable to use sorbitol for energy, but it can be slowly fermented in the mouth by streptococcus mutans, a species of bacteria that cause tooth decay unlike many other sugar alcohols such as isomalt and xylitol, which are considered to be non-acidogenic. It also occurs naturally in many stone fruits and berries from trees of the genus Sorbus.

Miscellaneous Uses

A mixture of sorbitol and potassium nitrate has found some success as an amateur solid rocket fuel. Sorbitol is identified as a potential key chemical intermediate for production of fuels from biomass resources. Carbohydrate fractions in biomass such as cellulose undergo sequential hydrolysis and hydrogenation in the presence of metal catalysts to produce sorbitol. Complete reduction of sorbitol opens the way to alkanes, such as hexane, which can be used as a biofuel. Hydrogen required for this reaction can be produced by aqueous phase catalytic reforming of sorbitol. Sorbitol based polyols are used in the production of polyurethane foam for the construction industry. It is also added after electroporation of yeasts in transformation protocols, allowing the cells to recover by raising the osmolarity of the medium.

Overdose Effect

Ingesting large amounts of sorbitol can lead to abdominal pain, flatulence, and mild to severe diarrhea. Habitual sorbitol consumption of over 20 grams (0.7 oz) per day as sugar-free gum has led to severe diarrhea, causing unintended weight loss or even requiring hospitalization. In early studies, a dose of 25g of sorbitol, eaten through the day, produced a laxative effect in only 5% of individuals. As a result of the large molecular weight of sorbitol, when large amounts of sorbitol are ingested, only a small amount of sorbitol is absorbed in the small intestine, and most of the sorbitol enters the colon, with consequent gastrointestinal effects.