Sorbitol is a sugar alcohol--and it is sometimes shows up under that name in an ingredients list--but it must be remembered that the chemical meanings of "sugar" and "alcohol" are different from the popular meanings. The name "sugar alcohol" means that sorbitol has some of the characteristics of sugars and some of the characteristics of alcohols but is in fact in neither group. Nutritionally, sorbitol--used as a sugar substitute--has some pros and cons.
Pros and Cons of Sugar Alcohols
Sugar alcohols, including sorbitol, occur naturally in fruits. They are carbohydrates, but not simple sugars like fructose or glucose; nor or they complex sugars like sucrose or cellulose. Nutritionally, they have some advantages over sugars. They are harder to digest than sugar which makes them have fewer calories, and the calories are delivered more slowly. One advantage of this is that sugar alcohols taste sweet but do not contribute to tooth decay. Sorbitol, specifically, tastes like sucrose (table sugar) but is not as sweet. It is often used to mask the taste of artificial sweeteners. The down side to the slow release of calories is that this can create problems for diabetics. Diabetics are attracted to "sugar free" items but sugar alcohols (which are technically "sugar free") can slowly release calories into the bloodstream in such a way as to invalidate blood glucose testing. Very high consumption of sugar alcohols can be dangerous for diabetics.
Sorbitol is one of the most frequently used of the sugar alcohols because it is very low in calories and has a taste very similar to sucrose--the taste that "sugar addicts" crave. Although it is mainly used as a sweetener it has other medical and scientific uses. It is a nonstimulant laxative in large doses. It is some times prescribed (mixed with kayexalate) to rid the body of excess potassium ions. It is also used in bacterial culture media to identify certain strains of Escherichia coli. Because of its transparent propriety, sorbitol is also used in the cosmetics industry to create transparent gels.
Sorbitol is similar in taste to ordinary sugar but not as sweet-tasting so a large amount is needed to reach the same satisfaction level. Because sorbitol is also a laxative, excessive amounts can also lead to diarrhoea. Even in small doses, sorbitol can cause bloating, gastrointestinal distress and irritable bowel syndrome. The most serious problem with sorbitol is that it can cover up the tastes of artificial sweeteners that are much more dangerous than sorbitol.
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