Sorbitol intolerance

Sorbitol intolerance (sorbitol malabsorption) occurs when the small intestine breaks down sorbitol insufficiently or not at all. Sorbitol intolerance is not a disease, but a very common response to this type of sweetener. 

Additionally, sorbitol is the rule, not the exception. No one can digest sorbitol like a sugar. This indigestibility is the reason that sorbitol contains fewer calories, but there is a cost; and it is legally required to label sorbitol-containing products, as it can have a laxative effect in larger quantities.

For people with fructose intolerance or lactose intolerance, consuming sorbitol can worsen symptoms. Sorbitol and fructose actually compete for the same transport and metabolic pathway.

Since the body metabolizes sorbitol as it does fructose, patients with a hereditary fructose intolerance should strictly avoid sorbitol.

What is sorbitol?

Sorbitol is a sugar alcohol, similar to the household sugar we know as sucrose. However, it is only about half as sweet. Sorbitol is naturally present in many fruits, particularly in stone fruits such as plums, apricots, and cherries. Because of the sorbitol present, large amounts of cherries can have a laxative effect in any person, irrespective of any intolerances. 

Sorbitol is also produced artificially and used in many foods:

  • In contrast to sucrose, sorbitol is considered to be tooth-friendly since the bacteria metabolize sorbitol as poorly as the human body.
  • Many diet products are sweetened with sorbitol for its low-calorie quality. 
  • Since sorbitol binds with water, it is used as a moistener and is common in baked goods, chocolates, and sauces. Even the bread from the baker around the corner can contain sorbitol, as it is often mixed into doughs. It extends shelf life, helps breads stay moist, and keeps bread fresh.

Sorbitol also has a broad range of applications. It is found in cosmetic products, as well as in building materials. Manufacturers even add it to tobacco as a moisturizing agent.

Further reading:

Symptoms of sorbitol intolerance

Diagnosing sorbitol intolerance

Therapy for sorbitol intolerance