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Physical Pharmacy Article: What is Sorbitol.

What is Sorbitol
Sorbitol or glucitol as it is sometimes, is a slow-metabolizing sugar alcohol
derived from fruits, corn and seaweed is a low calorie sugar known as a sugar alcohol
or polyol. It is found naturally in foods including prunes and apricots; is made
commercially, where its uses include products retain moisture, as an ingredient in
chewing gum and sugar free sweets and as an ingredient in some medicines. It's a
sugar substitute found in foods such as frozen desserts, sugar-free chewing gum and
dietetic candies. Sorbitol is used as a thickener and moisturizer in beauty products.

What does Sorbitol do in the body?


Sorbitol is very similar to glucose, but unlike glucose, it acts as a laxative by
being absorbed very slowly into the blood. As a consequence of this slow absorption
as it passes through the gut, the sorbitol tends to hold onto some water. This then
increases the moisture content of the stools which leads to easier passage from the
body. Sorbitol is a sugar alcohol (C6H1406), which is otherwise known as glucitol. It
is a white odorless powder that is sweet in taste. Sorbitol is found to be around 60% as
sweet as sugar. As it is very low in calories, when compared to sugar, sorbitol is used
as a sugar substitute in a wide range of products, including diabetic products to diet
drinks, sugar free candies, gums, chocolates, etc.

Sorbitol is also said to have laxative properties, as it draws water into the
colon, thereby stimulating bowel movements. It is nothing other than the sorbitol
medical preparation that is available in drug stores as a laxative and is used to treat
constipation. This compound is also said to have moisturizing properties and so is
used in various cosmetics too. Apart from being a sweetener, sorbitol provides energy
too. Today, most of the sorbitol used in food and cosmetic industry is derived from
corn. It can also be made synthetically.

Potential benefits and risks


Sorbitol rarely causes negative side effects (see below), however, due to the
effect on the gut, this can cause abdominal discomfort, flatulence, diarrhoea, a need
‘to go’ and nausea. Sorbitol containing drugs can also cause diarrhoea. If sorbitol is
consumed in a large enough dose, excess water may not be absorbed, so can cause
diarrhoea; flatulence; and loose stools.
Table 1 below outlines the potential risks and benefits of sorbitol.

• Low Glycaemic Index


• Involved in dental caries prevention
• Low in energy
• Laxative properties to help relieve constipation
• Acts as a prebiotic, which promotes the
Potential Benefits
production of good bacteria in the gut

• Produces stools of a ‘good’ consistency to help


leave the body easily, which can help prevent
against colon cancer and irritable bowel disease
• Diarrhoea
Potential Risks
• Abdominal discomfort

Sorbitol Dangers
Even though sorbitol is said to be safe, excess consumption of food products with
sorbitol may sometimes lead to abdominal pain, cramping, bloating, severe diarrhea,
etc. Use of sorbitol solution is sometimes said to cause anal irritation, dizziness,
irritability and rectal bleeding. Sorbitol side effects include excess thirst, dry mouth,
oedema, dehydration, trouble breathing, seizures, etc. It is said that some people
develop allergic reactions to sorbitol. Even occurrence of chest pain and certain
cardiac and pulmonary disorders are included as sorbitol dangers.

As far as consumption of sorbitol is concerned, moderate use is always recommended,


so as to avoid the possible side effects. Even those with certain medical conditions of
the gastrointestinal tract like irritable bowel syndrome, must avoid use of sorbitol. In
people with certain gastrointestinal problems, use of a small amount of sorbitol may
be enough to cause pain and bloating. It accumulates in the bowel, thereby casing side
effects. Even sorbitol intolerance is said to develop in some people. Sorbitol is usually
not recommended for pregnant and nursing women. Medical use of this compound
must be according to your doctor’s instructions only. If you experience any side
effects or allergic reactions after using sorbitol, contact your doctor immediately.
Now that you know what is sorbitol, you may control the use of sorbitol products.
But, as far as medical preparations are concerned, follow your doctor's instructions.

Sorbitol can have a laxative effect and is not recommended for consumption by
children and those with sensitive digestion symptoms or a gastro-intestinal condition
such as Irritable Bowel Syndrome. Sorbitol can cause diarrhea, bloating and gas
unless it's consumed in small quantities. It may also cause abdominal pain in some
cases.