E420

Sorbitol

  • Our verdict: 3 - watch out
  • Origin: It is produced synthetically and does not come from natural sources.

E420, commonly known as sorbitol, is a type of sugar alcohol used as a sweetener, humectant and texturizing agent. It is a white, crystalline powder or syrup that has approximately 60% of the sweetness of sucrose (table sugar) but with fewer calories. Sorbitol is hygroscopic, which means it attracts and retains moisture, making it useful in a variety of food applications.

Origin

Sorbitol occurs naturally in many fruits and berries, including apples, pears, peaches and plums. It is also synthetically produced from glucose using a catalytic hydrogenation process. Although found in nature, sorbitol used in food production is usually produced for consistency and cost‑effectiveness.

Characteristics and uses in the food industry

Sorbitol is widely used in the food industry due to its unique properties:

  • Sweetness: It provides a mild sweetness, approximately 60% of the sweetness of sucrose.
  • Moisturizing agent: Retains moisture, extends shelf life of products.
  • Texturizing agent: Improves the texture of foods, making them smoother and more palatable.
  • Stabilizer: Helps stabilize products by preventing crystallization.
  • ToothSafe: Does not contribute to tooth decay.
  • Low Glycemic Index: Suitable for diabetic‑friendly foods.

Use in ultra‑processed foods

Sorbitol is commonly used in ultra‑processed foods for a variety of reasons:

  • Calorie reduction: Sorbitol allows the creation of low‑calorie or sugar‑free products such as candy and chewing gum, which appeals to health‑minded and diabetic consumers.
  • Moisture retention: It acts as a humectant to keep baked goods and confectionery moist and fresh, extending their shelf life.
  • Texture Improvement: Improves the texture of foods, maintaining the chewiness of candies and the creaminess of dairy products.
  • Stabilizing agent: Prevents crystallization in products such as chocolates and syrups, ensuring consistent quality.
  • Dental health: non‑cariogenic properties make it ideal for sugar‑free chewing gum and candies, promoting oral health.
  • Diabetic options: its low glycemic index makes it suitable for diabetic foods, minimally affecting blood glucose levels.

Sorbitol's multifunctional properties improve the sensory qualities, stability and health profile of ultra‑processed foods, making them more appealing to a wide range of consumers.

Impact on human health

Although sorbitol is generally recognized as safe (GRAS) by the FDA, excessive consumption can lead to gastrointestinal problems due to its slow absorption in the small intestine. Some potential health considerations include:

  • Digestive upset: Consuming large amounts can cause bloating, gas and diarrhea, a condition often referred to as "sorbitol‑induced diarrhea."
  • Laxative effect: Sorbitol can act as a laxative when consumed in significant quantities, which can be problematic for individuals with sensitive digestive systems.
  • Fructose malabsorption: Individuals with fructose malabsorption or intolerance may react poorly to sorbitol and experience similar gastrointestinal symptoms.
  • Calorie content: Although lower in calories than sugar, sorbitol is still calorically dense compared to other sugar substitutes such as aspartame or stevia, which may be a consideration for those on a strict calorie‑controlled diet.

Individuals with IBS: Those who suffer from irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) may be particularly sensitive to sorbitol and should monitor their intake.

Sources

  1. Grembecka, M. (2015). Sugar alcohols‑their role in the modern world of sweeteners: a review. European Food Research and Technology, 241(1), 1‑14. doi:10,1007/s00217‑015‑2437‑7
  2. Livesey, G. (2003). Health potential of polyols as sugar replacers, with emphasis on low glycaemic properties. Nutrition Research Reviews, 16(2), 163‑191. doi:10,1079/NRR200373
  3. FDA. (2020). Additional Information about High‑Intensity Sweeteners Permitted for Use in Food in the United States. Retrieved from FDA
  4. Mäkinen, K. K. (2010). Sugar alcohols, caries incidence, and remineralization of caries lesions: A literature review. International Journal of Dentistry, 2010. doi:10,1155/2010/981072
  5. PubChem.(n.d.). Sorbitol. Retrieved from PubChem
  6. Hyams, J. S., Treem, W. R., Etienne, N. L., et al. (1998). Effects of sorbitol and fructose on the gastrointestinal symptoms of children with functional abdominal pain. Journal of Pediatric Gastroenterology and Nutrition, 27(1), 34‑38. Retrieved from PubMed