Celiac-Friendly Kitchen Design
Past, Present and Future
By Adina Moskowitz and Patricia Miller
Celiac disease can be traced back to 250 AD where a man named Aretaeus of Cappadocia described patients having ailments similar to that of celiac disease today. He called the patients “koiliakos” (or coeliacs) which translated to suffering from abdomen pain. For years there continued to be reports of diseases falling under the same symptoms of celiac disease. Dr. Mathew Baillie, a doctor of the 19th century, described it as a “chronic diarrheal disorder causing malnutrition and characterized by a gas-distended abdomen.” Dr. Baillie reported some of his patients feeling relief after a strict rice diet. However, no significant studies or findings occurred until Dr. Samuel Gee in 1888. He was working for the Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children in the UK and through a series of tests and studies he came to the conclusion that treatment needs to be diet based. After such findings, doctors could diagnose what their patients were suffering from, but still did not know specifically what foods were okay. In the 1900’s many dietary treatments were used for the afflicted; one such diet was the banana diet consisting of no bread, cereal, crackers or potatoes.
The biggest break in research was in 1952 by a Dutch pediatrician, Dr. Willem Karel Dicke. Dr. Dicke was the first to make the connection between the stomach ailments and wheat ingestion. The tale goes that during the bread shortages of World War II there were less cases of celiac disease and the numbers grew with more availability of bread. A few years later Dr. Dicke and his colleagues were able to pinpoint the relationship between wheat protein and damage to the intestinal mucosa. From this point on information about celiac diseases, its symptoms, dangers, and treatments were continuously growing. With better information and awareness the number of cases grew.
Doctors discovered gluten was affecting the “fingerlike” villi of the small intestine. These “villi” cover the surface of the small intestine like a high pile carpet. The purpose is to give the intestine a larger surface area in order to absorb more nutrients. However, in celiac patients doctors noticed the intestine’s surface was flat with no villi.
With this discovery doctors could now test to see if patients were indeed suffering from celiac disease or not. In 1956 gastroenterologist Margot Shiner implemented the use of a biopsy on the intestine to correctly diagnose celiac disease. In 1977 Detlef Schuppan discovered a way to test patients with a simple blood test. In the 1980’s celiac disease was categorized as an autoimmune disease. When patients suffering from celiac disease eat gluten the body’s immune system builds antibodies to the gluten and attacks the lining of the intestine. With the villi destroyed the body cannot absorb the proper amount of nutrients. The discovery of celiac disease as an autoimmune disorder has helped immensely in furthering research.
Celiac disease is still very much a current issue. It continues to go through extensive research. Questions are still being asked as to why the number of those afflicted with celiac disease is on the rise. Many believe that it was under-diagnosed for years, and people have been suffering with celiac disease for years without diagnosis.
As diagnosed cases of celiac disease rise, concerns about gluten contamination in the kitchen become more relevant to society. Doctors, message boards, and support groups can all offer information on how to make existing kitchens safer for those with celiac disease. Yet, we as interior designers have a great opportunity to create more celiac-friendly kitchens through design and renovation. There are many gluten safe choices that can be made when designing a kitchen.
The golden rule of living with food allergies is simple: keep everything separate and clearly labeled. Celiac disease is no different in that respect. According to the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness, Step 1 in making any kitchen gluten free is to buy a label maker and post-its. Be organized. Designate one (or more) cupboards as gluten free. Keep a gluten free section in the refrigerator and freezer (or a separate gluten free refrigerator/freezer altogether). Make sure it’s easy to find gluten free options, particularly in households with gluten free children. Easy, right? Here’s where gluten free gets complicated.
Gluten is not a bacteria. It’s a protein. Which means you can’t “kill” it with soap, heat, or alcohol. You can remove it from non-porous surfaces through the normal cleaning process. That’s great for stainless steel appliances. It’s not so great for butcher block countertops. Gluten will permanently contaminate wood, plastic, non-stick surfaces, and many stone products that have not been properly sealed.
In terms of kitchen design, that can have some pretty big ramifications. Avoid laminate countertops. Tile countertops are generally a bad idea, since grout lines are difficult to clean and may be porous. When designing a kitchen with a stone countertop, talk to manufacturers about different sealants that can be applied, and be very clear with your clients about countertop maintenance. Use common sense.
What about appliances? Looking at that fancy indoor barbeque pod? Check with the manufacturer to see if the surface is non-stick, and therefore not safe for gluten free/ non-gluten free dual use. Pay attention to any surface that food might touch. Also, think carefully about any appliance that has nooks and crannies that are difficult to clean. Leave counter space for separate toasters. No dual-use for breadmakers, either.
Every client has different needs in terms of kitchen layout, but there are some general guidelines for celiac/non-celiac residences. Extra storage is a must; clients will need to store two sets of all porous cooking implements (gluten free and non-gluten free Teflon pans, wooden spoons, plastics, etc.). If at all possible, specify two completely separate sinks. Anything soaking in a sink with non-gluten free dishes will be contaminated (sponges will also carry gluten contamination). Many families also find it helpful to designate a completely separate “gluten counter” where all non-gluten free food preparation takes place.
It’s also very important to think about surfaces that your clients will be touching during the cooking process; cabinet hardware and faucet controls are probably the biggest concern. Make sure they’re made of metal or a similarly cleanable surface. If there is a way to specify a “no-touch” option, do so.
Unfortunately for Celiac sufferers, airborne particles are also a concern. Wheat flour can puff up into the air, and inhaling it can cause severe illness. Appropriate ventilation systems will help minimize this. Be very clear about any filter changes or maintenance that must be performed. Ceiling fans should be avoided, because they will send hazardous particles flying around the air.
Remember, what goes up must come down, and gluten particles will settle on all surfaces indiscriminately. Avoid open storage. Anything that is left on a countertop or open shelf will inevitably accumulate trace amounts of gluten. Stick to recessed lighting. Anything that hangs down from the ceiling and isn’t cleaned regularly will accumulate gluten particles that can be sent flying again the next time the air is disturbed.
Designing a gluten free environment is challenging, but advances in technology continue to make gluten free kitchen design easier. As motion-sensing faucets and touch-latch cabinet doors become more readily available, trace contamination on hardware is easier to avoid. Advances in countertop surfacing continue to provide new and exciting options in non-porous materials. Corian, epoxy resin, engineered stone, recycled glass, and enameled surfaces are just a few of the options available. Advances in ventilation systems and cleaning products are also playing a role in minimizing gluten contamination.
A good kitchen design is all about thinking through the details. That is doubly true for a kitchen that has to accommodate gluten free and non-gluten free users. Before specifying anything, consider whether it can be thoroughly cleaned and whether airborne particles are a concern. Pay particular attention to anything that will be touching either food or people. If you’re not sure if a material is porous or not, ask someone. Most importantly of all, remember to keep open communication with your clients. They live with this every day, and may have very clear ideas about how they would like it handled in their space.
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Donnelly, Jacqui. Personal interview. 28 Apr. 2013.
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“National Celiac Awareness Month and History of Celiac Disease.” – Celiac.com. N.p., 29 Apr. 2010. Web. 03 May 2013.
Schurr, Suzy. How to Make (and Keep) your Kitchen Gluten-Free. National Foundation for Celiac Awareness. http://www.celiaccentral.org/glutenfree-food/keeping-a-safe-gluten-free-kitchen/ N.p. 28 April 2013. Web. 28 April 2013.
 “National Celiac Awareness Month and History of Celiac Disease.” – Celiac.com. N.p., 29 Apr. 2010. Web. 03 May 2013.
 Schurr, Suzy. How to Make (and Keep) your Kitchen Gluten-Free.