Carbohydrate malabsorption after apple juice ingestion may produce abdominal symptoms and diarrhea, especially in children. The carbohydrates suggested to play roles in this process are fructose, as it is present in excess of glucose, and sorbitol. Absorption of the carbohydrates in apple juice was investigated in 17 children and 12 adults by means of the hydrogen breath test. Apple juice was given at a dose of 15 ml/kg body weight, with a maximum of 375 ml. Fructose (0.6 g/kg) and sorbitol (0.06 g/kg), alone and in combination, were administered in amounts similar to their contents in apple juice (fructose as excess over glucose content). Apple juice malabsorption, as judged by a peak breath H2 excretion of > or = 20 ppm, was found in 11 children (65%) and 4 adults (33%). Of those malabsorbing apple juice, 7 of 11 children malabsorbed fructose, 1 of 11 sorbitol, and 4 of 11 the combination; the four adults absorbed all test solutions completely. We could not find an additive effect of sorbitol on breath H2 excretion after fructose ingestion. Peak breath H2 concentrations after apple juice ingestion (mean +/- SEM: 43 +/- 7 ppm) were higher than those with fructose (23 +/- 5 ppm; p < 0.05) or the fructose-sorbitol combination (20 +/- 5 ppm; p < 0.05). Fructose, and not sorbitol, is the sugar responsible for the increase in breath H2 after apple juice consumption and therefore for the diarrhea accompanying excessive apple juice consumption in toddlers.