Sorbitol: Biosynthesis, Degradation Pathway, and Applications

Sorbitol, derived from glucose, is a prominent sugar alcohol, also known as a polyol. This white, crystalline powder boasts a delightful sweetness. It occurs naturally in fruits like apples, pears, prunes, as well as seaweed and algae. With its wide range of applications, sorbitol is extensively utilized as a sugar substitute in an array of products. From sugar-free or reduced-sugar foods and beverages to chewing gum, candies, and pharmaceutical formulations, sorbitol delivers sweetness akin to sucrose while offering fewer calories and a lower glycemic index. Consequently, it emerges as an ideal choice for individuals managing diabetes or sugar intake. We will study about sorbitol biosynthesis and sorbitol degradation in this article.

Sorbitol as Sugar substitute

Beyond its role as a sugar substitute, sorbitol possesses numerous properties that make it highly appealing for deployment in the food and pharmaceutical sectors. It exhibits exceptional solubility in water, imparts a refreshing cooling effect in the mouth, and showcases humectant properties that aid in moisture retention, thereby extending the shelf life of specific products. Moreover, sorbitol finds utility beyond sugar substitution, serving as a versatile ingredient in diverse industries.

In food and beverage formulations, it acts as a bulking agent, stabilizer, and texturizer, enhancing the overall product experience. Within the pharmaceutical realm, sorbitol assumes the role of an excipient—an inactive component that facilitates the delivery of active ingredients in medications. While sorbitol is generally recognized as safe for consumption, it is crucial to exercise moderation due to its potential laxative effect and the possibility of digestive discomfort or diarrhea, particularly among those sensitive to sugar alcohols. As a result, it is prudent to consume sorbitol-containing products mindfully, being mindful of personal tolerance levels.

Incorporating sorbitol in your diet or product formulations opens up a world of possibilities, providing both sweetness and functional benefits across various industries.

Biosynthesis of Sorbitol

The biosynthesis of sorbitol occurs through a process known as the polyol pathway, also referred to as the sorbitol-aldose reductase pathway. This pathway involves the conversion of glucose to sorbitol, primarily in tissues such as the liver, seminal vesicles, and ovaries. Here’s a simplified explanation of the biosynthesis of sorbitol:

  1. Glucose is initially converted to glucose-6-phosphate by the enzyme hexokinase.
  2. Glucose-6-phosphate is then converted to fructose-6-phosphate through the enzyme glucose-6-phosphate isomerase.
  3. Fructose-6-phosphate is further converted to fructose-1,6-bisphosphate through the enzyme phosphofructokinase. This step is part of the glycolytic pathway.
  4. Fructose-1,6-bisphosphate is cleaved by the enzyme aldolase into two three-carbon compounds: glyceraldehyde-3-phosphate and dihydroxyacetone phosphate.
  5. Glyceraldehyde-3-phosphate is converted to glycerol-3-phosphate by the enzyme glyceraldehyde-3-phosphate dehydrogenase.
  6. Glycerol-3-phosphate is then converted to sorbitol by the enzyme sorbitol-6-phosphate dehydrogenase, with the oxidation of NADH (nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide, reduced form) to NAD+.
sorbitol biosynthesis

Overall, the biosynthesis of sorbitol involves the reduction of glucose to sorbitol through a series of enzymatic reactions in the polyol pathway. It’s important to note that the polyol pathway is particularly active in certain tissues, such as the lens of the eye and the nerves, where sorbitol accumulation can occur under specific conditions, leading to osmotic stress and potential cellular damage. For example, in diabetes, the elevated glucose levels can result in increased sorbitol production through the polyol pathway, contributing to diabetic complications in certain tissues.

Sorbitol Degradation Pathway

The sorbitol degradation pathway involves the breakdown of sorbitol, a sugar alcohol, into metabolically useful compounds. In biological systems, sorbitol degradation primarily occurs through the sorbitol dehydrogenase (SDH) pathway. Here’s a simplified overview of the pathway:

  1. Sorbitol dehydrogenase (SDH) catalyzes the oxidation of sorbitol to fructose, utilizing the coenzyme NAD+ (nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide, oxidized form): Sorbitol + NAD+ → Fructose + NADH + H+.
  2. Fructose, the product of the SDH reaction, can then enter the glycolytic pathway for further metabolism and energy production.
  3. Fructose is phosphorylated to fructose-1-phosphate by the enzyme fructokinase.
  4. The enzyme aldolase B cleaves fructose-1-phosphate into two three-carbon compounds: glyceraldehyde and dihydroxyacetone phosphate.
  5. Glyceraldehyde can be converted to glyceraldehyde-3-phosphate, which can enter the glycolytic pathway and contribute to energy production.
Sorbitol degradation
Sorbitol degradation

Overall, sorbitol degradation through the SDH pathway leads to the production of fructose, which is further metabolized through glycolysis to generate energy. It is important to note that the sorbitol degradation pathway is not universally present in all organisms. For example, humans lack the enzyme sorbitol dehydrogenase, and therefore cannot directly metabolize sorbitol. In humans, excessive consumption of sorbitol can lead to digestive issues, as it is not readily absorbed in the small intestine and can have a laxative effect.

Factors Influencing Sorbitol Degradation

The kinetics of sorbitol degradation, specifically in the context of the sorbitol dehydrogenase (SDH) pathway, can be described by studying the rate of the enzymatic reaction catalyzed by sorbitol dehydrogenase. Here are the key factors that can influence the kinetics of sorbitol degradation:

Substrate concentration:

The rate of sorbitol degradation is dependent on the concentration of sorbitol available for the enzyme SDH to act upon. Generally, as the substrate concentration increases, the rate of sorbitol degradation also increases until the enzyme becomes saturated with substrate. At saturation, the reaction rate reaches its maximum value.

Enzyme concentration:

The concentration of the enzyme SDH can affect the rate of sorbitol degradation. Higher concentrations of SDH can catalyze the reaction at a faster rate, assuming that other factors such as substrate availability are not limiting.

pH and temperature:

The kinetics of sorbitol degradation can be influenced by the pH and temperature conditions. Each enzyme has an optimum pH and temperature at which it exhibits maximum activity. Deviations from the optimal pH or temperature can affect the rate of the enzymatic reaction.

Enzyme inhibitors or activators:

Certain substances can act as inhibitors or activators of the enzyme SDH, affecting its activity and thus the rate of sorbitol degradation. These molecules may bind to the enzyme and alter its conformation or interfere with the catalytic process.


The availability of coenzymes, such as NAD+ (the oxidized form) and NADH (the reduced form), can influence the kinetics of sorbitol degradation. These coenzymes are involved in the redox reactions that occur during the conversion of sorbitol to fructose.

To obtain a detailed understanding of the kinetics of sorbitol degradation, experimental techniques such as enzyme kinetics assays can be employed. These experiments involve varying substrate concentrations, measuring the reaction rates under different conditions, and fitting the data to mathematical models, such as the Michaelis-Menten equation, to determine the kinetic parameters (e.g., Michaelis constant, maximum reaction rate) and understand the behavior of the enzymatic reaction.

Applications of Sorbitol Degradation

The degradation of sorbitol, particularly through enzymatic or chemical processes, finds various applications across different industries. Here are some notable applications of sorbitol degradation:

Chemical and Pharmaceutical Industries:

Sorbitol degradation can be utilized to produce valuable chemicals and pharmaceutical compounds. By converting sorbitol into intermediate compounds, such as glycerol or gluconic acid, it serves as a starting point for the synthesis of a range of chemical products. Additionally, sorbitol can be transformed into sorbose, a key intermediate in the production of vitamin C (ascorbic acid). These applications highlight the importance of sorbitol degradation in chemical and pharmaceutical synthesis.

Biofuel Production:

Sorbitol can be metabolized by microorganisms through fermentation processes to produce biofuels, such as ethanol or hydrogen. The enzymatic or microbial conversion of sorbitol into biofuels offers a renewable and sustainable approach to energy production.

Food and Beverage Industry:

Sorbitol degradation is relevant in the food and beverage sector for several reasons. Firstly, it helps in the production of low-calorie and sugar-free food products. Sorbitol, as a sugar substitute, provides sweetness without the same caloric content as sucrose. Secondly, sorbitol degradation can improve the texture and mouthfeel of certain food products, acting as a texturizer or humectant. Lastly, sorbitol degradation plays a role in the production of certain alcoholic beverages through fermentation processes.

Personal Care and Cosmetics:

Sorbitol degradation is utilized in the formulation of personal care and cosmetic products. It can be employed as a humectant in skincare products, helping to retain moisture and improve the hydrating properties of creams, lotions, and cosmetics.

Industrial Applications:

Sorbitol degradation can be applied in various industrial processes, such as wastewater treatment. Sorbitol can serve as a carbon source for microorganisms involved in biological wastewater treatment, aiding in the removal of pollutants from water.

These are just a few examples of the applications of sorbitol degradation in different industries. The versatility of sorbitol as a starting material for the production of various compounds makes it valuable in numerous fields, ranging from chemicals and pharmaceuticals to food, biofuels, and more. Incorporating sorbitol and its degradation pathways into various processes unlocks new possibilities and promotes sustainability in multiple sectors.

In conclusion, sorbitol, derived from glucose, is a versatile sugar alcohol with various applications in food, pharmaceutical, chemical, and other industries. As a sugar substitute, it offers sweetness with fewer calories and a lower glycemic index, making it suitable for individuals managing diabetes or sugar intake. The biosynthesis of sorbitol occurs through the polyol pathway, while its degradation primarily happens through the sorbitol dehydrogenase pathway. Understanding the factors influencing sorbitol degradation kinetics is essential for optimizing enzymatic reactions and industrial processes. The degradation of sorbitol finds applications in producing chemicals, pharmaceuticals, biofuels, and enhancing food, beverages, personal care products, and wastewater treatment. By harnessing the potential of sorbitol and its degradation pathways, industries can innovate, create sustainable solutions, and meet diverse consumer needs.

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Binod G C

I'm Binod G C (MSc), a PhD candidate in cell and molecular biology who works as a biology educator and enjoys scientific blogging. My proclivity for blogging is intended to make notes and study materials more accessible to students.

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