Sorbitol – from seeds to Eureba

Sorbitol is the most commonly used sugar alcohol. In the food industry, it is mainly used to provide sweetness with fewer calories and, above all, less impact on blood sugar levels than compared to sugar. The substance is found in fruits and berries but is produced industrially from starch from wheat and other starchy crops.

20 December 2019 • and

Sorbitol is nat­u­ral­ly found in sev­er­al fruits but is pro­duced indus­tri­al­ly from wheat and oth­er starchy crops. Thus, one of the world’s most com­mon crops becomes one of the world’s most com­mon sweet­en­ers. But how?

From glucose to sorbitol

Sorbitol is a sug­ar alco­hol. This means that the chem­i­cal struc­ture is the same as a sug­ar type, except for two hydro­gen atoms that have been attached on an oxy­gen atom.

This is done with hydro­gena­tion, which means that the sug­ar is exposed to hydro­gen, and often also pres­sure, in the pres­ence of a met­al that acts as a cat­a­lyst. Usually, it’s a nick­el alloy. The met­al becomes a land­ing place where a sug­ar mol­e­cule and a hydro­gen mol­e­cule can set­tle before they com­bine and become sug­ar alco­hol. None of the met­al is included.

The sug­ar, which in this way is con­vert­ed to sor­bitol, is glucose.

It starts with starch

Glucose is in turn pro­duced by hydrol­y­sis of starch. The starch is dis­solved in water, acid or enzymes are added, and the mix­ture is heat­ed. It caus­es the starch, which is chains of hun­dreds of glu­cose mol­e­cules, to be bro­ken up into small­er chains, that are bro­ken up into even small­er ones, and so on until one gets glu­cose syrup that most­ly con­sists of just glucose.

The starch that every­thing starts with can be from pota­toes, corn, cas­sa­va – or wheat.

Wheat

Wheat can be grown with good yields in large parts of the world, as it is durable and thrives in every­thing from a few degrees above zero, to a com­fort­able 32 degrees Celcius. However, wheat thrives best when it is around 20 degrees. The cul­ti­va­tion takes place in clay soil, prefer­ably chalky ditto.

There are many types of wheat, but bread wheat (Triticum aes­tivum) con­sti­tutes about 95 per cent of all wheat grown. Depending on whether the wheat is sown in the fall or spring it is called autumn wheat and spring wheat, respec­tive­ly.

Autumn wheat is sown in mid-September. Then it has time to ger­mi­nate and estab­lish a root sys­tem before the frost strikes. Coldness caus­es the sprout to go into hiber­na­tion. It will not con­tin­ue to grow until the spring sun warms the ground. Autumn wheat is har­vest­ed from mid-May. Spring wheat is plant­ed in spring and har­vest­ed in the fall.

Wheat is the sec­ond most cul­ti­vat­ed crop in the world, beat­en only by corn. Most wheat is cul­ti­vat­ed in China, India, and Russia. On the oth­er hand, the European Union tak­en togeth­er is at the top with 150–160 mil­lion tonnes per year.

And some of it is used to pro­duce sorbitol.

Sweet from sour berries

Sorbitol is not only pro­duced by starch from wheat and oth­er crops.; it is also pro­duced in your body. It hap­pens when an enzyme called aldose reduc­tase con­verts glu­cose into sor­bitol in your tis­sues. The enzyme is found a bit here and there in the body, includ­ing the liv­er, kid­neys and red blood cells, but also in the ovaries and the sem­i­nal vesicle.

Sorbitol is also found in fruits and berries, such as plums, pears, peach­es, apples, nec­tarines, apri­cots, straw­ber­ries, rasp­ber­ries, black­ber­ries, cher­ries – and rowan berries.

In fact, it was in the juice of rowan berries that the sweet sub­stance was dis­cov­ered. Therefore, sor­bitol got its name from the sci­en­tif­ic name for rowan berries – Sorbus aucu­paria.

Jean-Baptist Boussingault (1801–1887) was an excit­ing sci­en­tist who, at a young age, climbed vol­ca­noes in South America and stud­ied vol­canic gas­es, earth­quakes and trop­i­cal rains. Thirty-six years of age, he began to devote his stud­ies to agri­cul­ture. He inves­ti­gat­ed the nitro­gen con­tent of dif­fer­ent foods, the amount of gluten in wheat vari­eties, showed that plants breathe, but can­not absorb nitro­gen from the atmos­phere and many oth­er things relat­ed to agri­cul­tur­al chem­istry, ani­mal and plant phys­i­ol­o­gy. In 1839, he became a mem­ber of the Institut de France and the same year at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in Sweden.

Sorbitol was dis­cov­ered in 1872 by the French chemist Jean-Baptist Boussingault. However, it took more than half a cen­tu­ry before it began to be used in food.

Initially, the vol­umes were small, and it was used to replace sug­ars in foods for peo­ple with dia­betes. Compared to reg­u­lar sug­ar, sor­bitol has only a min­i­mal effect on blood sug­ar. The gly­caemic index (GI) of sor­bitol is 6 com­pared to sug­ar which has 92 if white bread is used as ref­er­ence (GI 100).

It was not until the mid-1950s that sor­bitol began to be pro­duced in larg­er quan­ti­ties. By then, sor­bitol had start­ed to be used as a mois­ture-bind­ing ingre­di­ent in skin­care and cos­met­ics prod­ucts, and as a sug­ar sub­sti­tute in sweets. Areas of use that are still stand­ing today.

Popular despite issues

Sorbitol is cheap. It is the most afford­able sug­ar alco­hol on the mar­ket. Therefore, it is also pop­u­lar as an alter­na­tive to sug­ar. But it has its issues as such.

Sorbitol is not calo­rie-free – but 2.4 kcal/​gram is sig­nif­i­cant­ly less than the 4 kcal/​gram of sug­ar. On the oth­er hand, sor­bitol is not as sweet as sug­ar. It has 50–60 per cent of the sweet­ness of reg­u­lar sug­ar. Therefore, the same sweet­ness requires twice as much sor­bitol com­pared to sug­ar, and then we have about the same calo­ries. But that’s not the worst…

Like all sug­ar alco­hols, sor­bitol has a lax­a­tive effect. How much you can eat per kilo­gram of body weight before it is time to run to the toi­let varies between dif­fer­ent sug­ar alco­hols. Best in the class is ery­thri­tol. During one day, you can safe­ly eat 0.66 grams per kilo­gram of body weight. Worst in class is… You guessed it: sor­bitol. During one day, you should not con­sume more than 0.17 grams per kilo of body weight.

Sorbitol has its place

Sorbitol also has good sides. Among oth­er things, it can serve as an excip­i­ent, and as a humec­tant in food. Besides, it has a smooth, albeit chilly, taste that suits, among oth­er things, chew­ing gum, throat tablets, can­dies, ice cream, frozen desserts and cookies.

Therefore, after all, it can be used to replace sug­ar, but rarely alone. It needs to be com­bined with oth­er ingre­di­ents that also help to fill the space of sug­ar – both lit­er­al­ly and figuratively.

The ques­tion is what the oth­er ingre­di­ents are and in what pro­por­tions they should be used. Also, new ingre­di­ents pose new chal­lenges in man­u­fac­tur­ing. Don’t wor­ry: use sweet­ened fibres.

Try sweetened fibres

Sweetened fibres is a homo­ge­neous com­po­si­tion of dietary fibres and plant-based sweet­en­ers. It is a turnkey solu­tion for food man­u­fac­tur­ers who want to reduce or alto­geth­er avoid added sug­ar, but can­not afford the time and cost need­ed to devel­op a whole new recipe with new and per­haps unfa­mil­iar ingre­di­ents like sorbitol.

If you want to try sweet­ened fibre in your recipe or for­mu­la, we can send you a sam­ple of our brand EUREBA®. Call us on tele­phone num­ber 08–613 28 88 or send an e‑mail to info@​bayn.​se. You can too read more about them and down­load prod­uct sheets.

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