An urgent email came across my line today in all caps with a rarely-used triple exclamation point in the subject line. The email: “ROBITUSSIN NOW CONTAINS GLUTEN!”
That was it. No details, no source. And it didn’t just go to me — it went to a huge celiac support group list.
These kinds of alerts and warnings are broadcast on our celiac listservs, posted on Twitter and Facebook, and shared in emails and support group meetings all the time. Unfortunately, that’s often our community’s best means of protection. Also unfortunately, these urgent messages are often false and lead to gluten-free panic attacks. (The converse of that is also true: there was a post on Twitter yesterday that envelope glue in the US no longer contains gluten; this fact has been true for years, but it caused panic in folks who never knew there used to be gluten in envelope glue, and wondered what else they didn’t know!).
This latest warning had me on my heels though, since my go-to list of gluten-free medications (most recently updated last month) didn’t indicate that any Robitussin medications contain gluten. So, I called Pfizer, the maker of Robitussin (their toll-free number is on the website).
I got through to a nice representative who went through all their products with me and who indicated that there were indeed THREE of the Robitussin varieties which contained added gluten; the remaining products are not tested to determine whether they are gluten-free, but there is no gluten in their ingredients. (I have to say that I’m not entirely sure they know what they are talking about, since she indicated that the gluten is contained in the corn syrup or yeast in these three products, which it is not; however, I also believe it’s better to be safe than sorry when it comes to gluten. One follow-up note: the sender of the email later told me that she has personally been sickened by one of these products.)
UPDATE: I had earlier reached out to Steve Plogsted – a clinical pharmacist and professor of pharmacy, and THE resident expert on gluten in pharmaceuticals and over-the-counter medications – to see his take on all this ingredient confusion. Plogsted was out of the country when this story broke, but called Pfizer himself upon his return. This is what Plogsted told me about his conversation with Pfizer (quoted with permission):
I just spoke with the company and they are now saying that the only Robitussin product that contains gluten is the Maximum Strength Cough and Chest Congestion DM and the source of that gluten is corn. They said that they are not allowed to separate (in their response) the source of gluten. They are aware that corn gluten is OK and wheat is not but to them, gluten is gluten.
There are no glutens in syrups so this whole deal is just crazy in my opinion. This is the same company who has told me that 8 or so of their prescription products contain gluten which they don’t; they contain the sugar alcohols.
So, according to Pfizer, whether it makes sense or not, ONE of their cold and cough medicines does contain gluten:
Robitussin® Peak Cold Maximum Strength Cough + Chest Congestion DM
- Don’t jump to conclusions and panic over everything you hear or read about gluten.
- Use the resources available to you: trusted books or internet sources, physicians, experts.
- If ever in doubt, call the customer service number for any brand or product — that’s why it’s there.
- When it comes to pharmaceuticals, ask your pharmacist to confirm the gluten-free status of all your prescriptions.
- Share the information you learn with others in a reasonable manner that informs rather than scares.
If you would like to learn more about pharmaceuticals, over-the-counter medications and gluten, go to:
The First Year: Celiac Disease & Living Gluten Free (2008 Da Capo Press)
Steven Plogsted, “Medications and Celiac Disease — Tips from a Pharmacist,” Practical Gastroenterology (January 2007): 58-64, The Celiac Diet, Series #5, Carol Rees Parrish, ed.
GlutenFreeDrugs (list of medications)
NFCA: Gluten in Medications for Patients
NFCA: Tips for Pharmacists