Chronic diabetic complications, in particular, nephropathy, peripheral and autonomic neuropathy, "diabetic foot," retinopathy, and cardiovascular disease, remain the major cause of morbidity and mortality in patients with diabetes mellitus. Growing evidence indicates that both increased activity of the sorbitol pathway of glucose metabolism and enhanced oxidative stress are the leading factors in the pathogenesis of diabetic complications. The relation between the two mechanisms remains the area of controversy. One group has reported that increased sorbitol pathway activity has a protective rather than detrimental role in complication-prone tissues because the pathway detoxifies toxic lipid peroxidation products. Others put forward a so-called "unifying hypothesis" suggesting that activation of several major pathways implicated in diabetic complications (e.g., sorbitol pathway) occurs due to increased production of superoxide anion radicals in mitochondria and resulting poly(ADP-ribose) polymerase activation. This review (a) presents findings supporting a key role for the sorbitol pathway in oxidative stress and oxidative stress-initiated downstream mechanisms of diabetic complications, and (b) summarizes experimental evidence against a detoxifying role of the sorbitol pathway, as well as the "unifying concept."