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The laxative effect from sorbitol, a sugar substitute, is more than a discomfort, says the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI). According to studies, sorbitol can lead to severe diarrhea, and the CSPI wants its label to say so.
Sorbitol appears in many kinds of products advertised as sugar-free foods, including sugar-free candy and pancake syrup.
Right now, a U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) warning must appear on sorbitol-sweetened products, warning against excessive consumption of the product. The label must read: "Excessive consumption may have a laxative effect."
Sorbitol is a sugar alcohol. Other sugar alcohols used as sugar replacers in foods are maltitol, manitol, Isomalt, xylitol and hydrogenated starch hydrolysate. According to Mike Jacobson, executive director for the CSPI, there should be warnings on foods that contain any of these products.
Children Face the Greatest Danger
The CSPI adds that children face the greatest danger from sorbitol. Because children are smaller, they could experience diarrhea or cramping from smaller amounts.
"Since even small amounts of sorbitol can cause gastrointestinal symptoms, it is important for the FDA to inform the public of these potential problems," says Dr. Jeffrey Hyams, of the digestive diseases and nutrition department at Connecticut Children's Medical Center. "I know of people who have undergone extensive medical testing for abdominal pain and diarrhea when the problem was simply that they were ingesting excessive amounts of sorbitol."
Sorbitol Not Dangerous
Sorbitol defended itself through the Calorie Control Council, a conglomeration of companies that manufacture low-calorie and reduced-fat products. Lyn Nabors, vice president of the Calorie Control Council, says that sorbitol occurs naturally in fruits and berries.
Jacobson adds, "I have never heard of anyone having gastrointestinal problems from fruit."
Nabors says that for the vast majority of consumers, sorbitol does not cause a problem.
"For a few, excessive consumption can lead to mild gastrointestinal discomfort-but no more than you would have with beans, cabbage, some dried fruits and certain other high-fiber foods," says Nabors.
Some More Sensitive Than Others
Nabors says that some people are more sensitive to sorbitol than others, and that any gastrointestinal effects go away once people adapt to the product. She contends that the CSPI's charge is not backed up by any published research.
Jacobson says he has never heard of people developing a tolerance to sugar alcohols. He wants to warn people with diabetes about sugar alcohols because if they experience gastrointestinal problems, they may not know what they have eaten to cause this. With knowledge, they will know and take it easy on portion sizes.
"We're not saying it is a poison," says Jacobson. "We're saying, if you are going to use sorbitol, start with small portions."
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