Sorbitol is an artificial sweetener that has 1/3 fewer calories than sugar, but is used for much more than sweetening food and drink. It has several cosmetic and medical applications and is added to oral health products. It is found in pears, peaches, apples, prunes, seaweed, and some berries.
This sweetener is actually a sugar alcohol that is also known as glucitol. It is a white powder or liquid that is sweet in taste and odorless. Unlike other sugar alternatives, however, it has only about 60% of the sweetness of sugar, but it is 10 times sweeter than xylitol. It is very slow to metabolize in the body, which lessens the chance of increased levels of insulin. This makes sorbitol a good sweetener for diabetics.
Sorbitol is one of the most familiar sugar substitutes and is a frequent addition to diet foods. Low calorie candies, ice cream, baked goods, and chewing gum are commonly made with this sweetener. Foods made with this ingredient stay fresh and moist longer than those made with most other nutritive sweeteners. A small amount added to peanut butter improves spreadability and keeps it from becoming dry and crumbly. It is also added to shredded coconut to keep the flakes moist.
Cosmetic products are often thickened with sorbitol. It may be added to chewing tobacco to improve the flavor and to cigarettes to keep the tobacco inside from breaking down and crumbling. Mouthwashes and toothpastes are made more transparent and pleasant tasting with the addition of this sugar alcohol, as are cough drops and syrups. Hair gels and shampoos also frequently contain sorbitol.
Laxatives are sometimes made with sorbitol, usually in liquid or enema form. When used in this form, the bowel is stimulated as it retains water within the colon and increases muscle movement. It is also used as an irrigation solution during urinary and prostate surgeries to prevent infection and is administered by injection. Sorbitol can be combined with Kayexalate to eliminate excess potassium from the body when medically necessary. Most people, including the elderly, can usually use these products safely.
Though safe in small to moderate amounts, the substance does have some harmful side effects when too much is consumed. They include dry mouth, excessive thirst, dehydration, and edema. When larger amounts are ingested, it can cause abdominal cramps, diarrhea, and bloating. Less commonly, it may cause dizziness and irritability. Those with gastrointestinal problems such as irritable bowel syndrome should not use any product containing sorbitol.