Reduced-calorie sweeteners like sorbitol have about half to one-third of the calories of sugar, making them useful in sugar-free and reduced-sugar foods and beverages. As one of the sugar alcohols, sorbitol is often found in sugar-free chewing gum, candy, frozen desserts and shredded coconut. While sorbitol may help you reduce your sugar intake and calorie consumption, it can also have some adverse effects, especially if you get a lot of it in your diet.
Gas, Nausea and Stomach Cramps
The most common side effects that occur when people consume sorbitol include gas, nausea and stomach cramps. This is more likely to happen to children, who have a lower tolerance for sugar alcohols than adults. Some adults, however, also experience these effects when consuming just 10 grams of sorbitol, which can be easily reached if people eat a number of sugar-free products. For example, a stick of sorbitol-sweetened gum has about 1.25 grams of sorbitol.
Doses of 50 grams or more of sorbitol may have a laxative effect, and foods with this much sorbitol must have a warning label, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. In fact, a sorbitol solution is sometimes prescribed by doctors to help treat constipation. Sorbitol increases the amount of fluid the colon retains, making the stool softer and larger and causing the muscles in the intestines to move it out of the colon.
In some people who eat a lot of foods containing sorbitol, severe weight loss can occur, according to an article published in the British Medical Journal in 2008. In one example mentioned in the article, a woman lost more than 24 pounds due to diarrhea caused by chewing about 20 sticks of sorbitol-sweetened gum per day. Diarrhea that is severe enough to cause weight loss may also limit the absorption of nutrients, making deficiencies more likely.
Limiting These Effects
The American Diabetes Association notes that consuming smaller amounts of regular foods is sometimes preferable to buying sugar-free varieties, which often have more calories, fat and sugar than you might expect. This allows you to enjoy small amounts of your favorite treats without the risk of gastrointestinal symptoms.