Sugar Alcohols

On Hoshana Rabba we recount various nissim that were related to water. Among those mentioned is the אות which הקב“ה gave to Gideon by filling a fleece of wool with טל. [עיין פזמון “למען תמים” וז“ל למען למד ראות לטובה אות, זעק איה נפלאות, מצה טל מגזה מלא הספל מים וכו’] That טל was an אות. Today in the production of sugar alcohols, however, it is just the opposite-“-ose” is converted into “-tol” (ונהפוך הוא, as will be explained further)! The purpose of this month’s article is to discuss these types of products and recent changes in the industry that have interesting kashrus ramifications.

The term sugar refers to a broad category of carbohydrates, foods which are composed of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen. Most simple sugars in our diet are hexoses, molecules containing six carbon atoms, which are represented by the chemical formula C6H12O6. Depending on the position of the atoms in the molecule, however, this chemical formula represents many different sugars-glucose, fructose, galactose, and others. These sugars are called monosaccharides. When two molecules of such sugars are bonded together, the molecule is called a disaccharide. Two glucose molecules create a sugar called maltose, glucose and fructose create sucrose (common table sugar), glucose and galactose create lactose (milk sugar). You will notice that the names of all sugars end with an –ose, a convention derived from the Greek word gleukos (a sweet wine), which is the source of the Greek glykys meaning sweet. [For a further discussion concerning various types of sugar and their halachic implications, please see a future article entitled “Korn” Syrup and the Real Thing ( P-10).]

While sugars serve many uses in the food industry, scientists have developed ways of modifying them to alter their characteristics. One of these processes involves converting the sugar into sugar alcohols. The term alcohol connotes a category of chemicals with an added OH (oxygen/hydrogen) hydroxyl radical; intoxicating properties not being a prerequisite for membership. [No, you cannot be מקיים עד דלא ידע with a sorbitol cocktail.] The addition of hydrogen to the molecule of sugar is called hydrogenation, and is accomplished by introducing hydrogen gas into the sugar solution in the presence of a nickel/aluminum catalyst (called Raney nickel after its inventor).

Just as the various sugars have distinct names, their respective alcohols are similarly differentiated. Hydrogenated glucose is called sorbitol, hydrogenated fructose is called mannitol, hydrogenated maltose is called maltitol, and hydrogenated lactose is called lactitol. You will also notice that all of these alcohols end with a –tol ending (see title of this article). [The word alcohol comes from the Arabic al-kuhl, hence the convention of ending alcohols with an –ol.]

Sugar alcohols play important roles in food production. Although sorbitol is less sweet than glucose, it is often used in reduced calorie foods. Sorbitol has recently been recognized to provide slightly fewer available calories per gram than glucose, and is important to diabetics in that it does not require insulin to be metabolized. It is also the sweetener used in toothpaste, because it does not promote tooth decay (the bacteria that causes caries, tooth decay, does not grow on sorbitol). Sorbitol also tends to retain water, and is used as a humectant (a chemical that retains water) in chewing gum to keep it soft. Xylitol, the alcohol of the wood sugar xylose, is often used in chewing gum because of tis refreshing flavor and its ability (according to some studies) to inhibit the growth of caries-causing bacteria. Maltitol is used in the manufacture of reduced calorie hard candies, since it has the same hardening properties as maltose. Lactitol is used to replace lactose in sugar-free chocolate.

Historically, sorbitol and other sugar alcohols were considered relatively innocuous from a kosher perspective-they posed no greater kashrus concerns than the base sugar from which they were produced. Sorbitol was the primary sugar alcohol used in the food industry, with mannitol, maltitol, and xylitol having very specific uses. Lactitol’s practical application was limited to that of a laxative. Recently, however, the use of lactitol was approved for use in sugar-free chocolate and demand for the product has increased substantially. Companies that heretofore had produced only plant sugar alcohol began the manufacture of lactitol on the same equipment. While lactose may be kosher, it is certainly milchig. Since the hydrogenation of these sugars is done at high temperatures, were sorbitol to be produced on the same equipment as lactitol without an appropriate kashering in between, the sorbitol would be dairy. Given the broad use of sorbitol throughout the food industry, dairy sorbitol would cause serious kashrus problems. Fortunately, the OU was already certifying many of these sorbitol manufacturers, and we were in a position to work with the companies to ensure the continued kosher and pareve status of their sorbitol and other sugar alcohols. What became clear, however, was that sorbitol was certainly not as problem-free as once assumed, and that a reliable kosher certification was required for these products.

Changes in the food industry are the rule rather than the exception. Development of new products and new applications can have kashrus ramifications that are difficult to anticipate, and it is the responsibility of all involved in kashrus to be alert to these changes. It may be this Pesach that we should have an additional כוונה when we are מתפלל that טל should be לברכה ולא לקללה!