- Why you should trust us
- Who this is for and why it matters
- Top 8 allergens, labeling laws, marketing tricks
- You can't depend on Red Cross, FEMA, etc
- Keep more safe food than normal in your bags
- Allergy-safe survival foods you can buy today
- Prepare your own safe food at home
- Staying safe during an emergency
- Treating an allergic reaction during an emergency
- Our pick for EpiPen storage cases
Why you should trust us
I’ve been a prepper for seven years, and both myself and my son have food allergies. My son is anaphylactic reactive to multiple foods, so I must take great care in finding and preparing safe food storage options for him. I have a condition called Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity (NCGS), which makes me react very negatively to wheat and most gluten.
When I first started dealing with my sons allergies, I was frustrated by the lack of information and clarity in ingredients.
We’ve spent over 100 combined hours of past research in our own prepping and additional research and product testing for this article. We interviewed representatives from many of the large emergency food distributors to understand their approach to allergens in the off-the-shelf food products a prepper might normally buy.
We field tested the best of those food options for things like taste and packaging. For other areas, like storage cases for EpiPens, we researched all of the available major products through reading reviews and other commentary. We then bought and field tested the top five.
Who this is for and why it matters
Food allergies are becoming more common, affecting an estimated 6 million children and 9 million adults in the US.
Food allergies are no joke — even a little mistake can cause someone to react and die quickly. Constant vigilance is needed to keep people with food allergies safe.
Even if you or your immediate dependents don’t have a severe allergy, consider your extended family or prepper group. While it’s impractical to stock up on gluten free food for a distant relative, you can take simple steps when adding to your preps to make it safe to cook for everyone. This might mean using metal cooking tools and having enough soap for cleaning meals.
We are not considering situations when people choose certain diets for lifestyle reasons. People with Celiac Disease have a medical condition that means they need to eat gluten-free forever, otherwise they suffer serious medical consequences. The recent popularity of gluten-free foods has been driven by people that want to eat that way for various reasons.
When thinking about emergency and disaster situations, we’re assuming that anyone that doesn’t have a bona fide medical need for a special diet will be fine with eating whatever they can.
Top 8 allergens, labeling laws, and common mistakes
The top 8 allergens are milk, soy, wheat, eggs, fish, crustaceans, tree nuts, and peanuts.
Labeling laws in the US lag behind much of the rest of the developed world by only covering the eight most common allergies, and ignoring additives like herbs and spices.
It’s important to know if your medical need would be included in a general “allergen safe” certification or marketing spin. For example, if something is marked as being vegan, it is probably safe for someone with a dairy allergy. If something is “paleo” it typically will not contain legumes. Use these buzzwords to help you in your search.
Allergens can currently hide behind ambiguous ingredient names such as “natural flavors.” Some things used as spices are in families that have common allergens. An example is tamarind, which is in the legume family.
There may be foods that are certified gluten free but are marked “not safe for Celiac.” The food is processed to where it contains under the legal limit of 20 parts per million for gluten but could still trigger an immune response in a person with Celiac disease.
Garry Carlson, Director of Materials at Augason Farms, points out that many companies try to get tricky with their labels. For example, non-GMO, GMO Free, and Organic technically mean different things, and it was very difficult to tell what you were actually buying until the USDA created the Organic Guidelines.
Look for seals or certifications that come from third parties, like Real Dairy and Gluten Free, to avoid making mistakes due to fuzzy marketing. Carlson uses oats as an example. When possible, buy oats that are certified gluten free. Some people that eat uncertified oats still have problems because of processing and harvesting practices in the non-certified oats.
Tracking food recalls is good practice for your daily life, but they also apply to prepper food. It’s easy to overlook checking your food supply for recalls because we don’t touch that supply every day. Keep a log of the food you buy (UPC code, lot number, etc.) so you can check the current list of recalls through the government’s Food Safety website. Or you can sign up for email alerts with the FDA.
We make this part of our prep review routine. When we check for other things like dead batteries and expired food we also check for food recalls. Where we might normally do a prep review every six or twelve months and skip the recall check, because of severe allergies we do a quicker review every three months. You can also use this cycle to keep things fresher by using some of the prep food in normal life and replacing it with new purchases.
Can you depend on allergy-safe food in places like Red Cross or FEMA shelters?
We contacted the Red Cross to find out what allergy-safe food options would be available in a crisis. They stated:
“As a component of individual or family emergency preparedness, we would advise you to prepare a small emergency supply of food or snacks to meet your immediate needs because it may take a couple of days to incorporate a specific diet type or food need during the initial stage of a disaster response. [Which is why] we indicate in all of our preparedness information that a disaster preparedness kit should contain non-perishable foods specific to your dietary needs.”
The Red Cross told us they might have allergy-safe options, namely for peanuts, but it was wishy washy enough where you shouldn’t depend on agencies for your food.
They went on to add, “The Red Cross would be able to accommodate those with specific food needs, specifically peanut allergies, if self-declared in advance so we can work with national or local vendors to meet required needs, especially if that need is large scale.”
There’s enough “maybe… kinda… it depends” in that response that reinforces our default belief that you should not depend on others for any of your critical needs during a disaster. Things are just too hectic and too uncoordinated.
Keep more food than normal in your supplies
Although some government and prepper websites talk about a “72 hour kit”, The Prepared recommends that everyone plans for at least two weeks. Keeping two weeks of food in your home is pretty easy.
For bug out bags and get home bags, in normal circumstances The Prepared’s research and experts recommend not carrying too much food because it has a really bad weight and volume to value ratio. Normally it’s better to have two to three days worth of food in your bag.
But for those of us with allergies, it does make sense to include more food than normal. There are just too many risks — what if the shelter doesn’t have safe food? What if things take longer than expected to get back to normal? What if emergency medical services are unavailable?
Depending on your other specific needs, we recommend doubling the amount of food in your first priority bug out bag and get home bag to three days worth.
You might want to go as far as modifying the standard Bug Out Bag priority list by putting a lot more of your safe food in your #2 bag (the bag you would grab second after your primary BOB).
Popular allergy-safe survival food you can buy today
Companies don’t always make it easy to know how allergen safe their products are, so we started digging.
Not every manufacturer replied with enough concrete info that we felt comfortable sharing. We will update this post over time with new data, sources, and products as they become available.
Unfortunately, some companies do still treat allergies as a fringe annoyance or refuse to disclose if certain ingredients are in their products because of proprietary recipes.
But things seem to be moving in the right direction. As food allergies become more understood by the general public, more companies are forthcoming with ingredients lists and manufacturing procedures.
Some use proper cleaning methods in between production runs so they don’t cross contaminate — because even the dust left over from an allergen can make its way into a different product and cause severe reactions.
Mountain House, the popular camping and prepper food pouches, offers Top 8 allergen friendly options.
Mountain House Beef Stew 1 Pound Cans
Mountain House Italian Pepper Steak Pouches
Mountain House provided us with a recent table of each product and the allergens they contain. From that list, here are the products that are gluten free and Top 8 allergen safe Rice and Chicken (clean label formula), Chicken and Rice Pro Pack, Beef Stew (clean label formula), Chicken Fajita Bowl, Italian Style Pepper Steak, Mexican Style Adobo Rice & Chicken, Spicy Southwest Breakfast Hash. Again, as recipes change often, double check the ingredients on the back of the packaging to make sure you are not allergic to anything.
Mountain House Ground Beef Cans
Mountain House Diced Chicken Cans
We spoke with Holly Hughes at Mountain House about their manufacturing process. They clean the rooms and equipment between products that contain the top 8 allergens, and the lines go through an increased cleaning procedure in between high-risk changes.
They do clean between vegetables, but it’s not as thorough as it is for the core top eight allergens. If you have a tree nut allergy, Mountain House is safe, but they do process coconuts in the same facility.
Their products have a 30 year shelf life, are lightweight, easy to cook (just add boiling water), and come in tasty options. Mountain House pouches are one of the main survival foods we recommend for every bug out and get home bag, regardless of allergies.
Mountain Houses’ labeling is above average but could be better. They print “gluten free” on relevant products, but without a seal. They will call out allergens like soy, and their Amazon product descriptions will highlight “allergen free”, but there is no labeling on the packaging to remind you.
Augason is one of the major survival food companies, both for their own brand Augason Farms and as a white-label producer for many other popular brands. They offer larger cans and pails with 10 to 25 year shelf lives, so they’re good for your home supplies but less so for your bug out bag without some DIY extra steps.
We spoke with Garry Carlson, Director of Materials at Augason Farms. He impressed us with the company’s clear expertise on allergen-safe manufacturing processes and its desire to help customers with these needs. They have a few safe and popular options you can buy today for long-term home stores.
Carlson explains, “Augason Farms as a company takes great care in handling our products, especially when it comes to allergens. We are a SQF Facility, meaning that we are held to a higher standard of inspection including policies and procedures when handling all foods, including foods that have allergens.”
They offer Certified Gluten-Free products manufactured in a facility that is tested and certified as gluten-free. Carlson also proactively mentioned the tricky issue with oats and noted that their oats are certified gluten free.
Augason Farms Gluten Free Black Bean Burger 4 Gallon Pail
Augason Farms Vegetable Stew 2 Pound Can
These are some of the popular options:
- Vegetarian and gluten-free meat substitutes in chicken, beef and bacon bits flavors. All have soy.
- Vegetarian and gluten-free black bean burgers and vegetable stew.
- Gluten-free southwest chili mix (soy) and scrambled egg mix (dairy).
We found their labels to be very clear, with third party seals for certifications like Organic and Gluten-Free. They also clearly highlight allergens like soy, which is present in many of their products.
Carlson adds, “We have an on-site lab, so every time we do a clean out and swab our equipment, we can test and see if we are clean without waiting for a lab to get back to us.”
Valley Food Storage
We spoke with Erin at Valley Food Storage. They offer a line of dairy-free freeze dried food, and they clean between production runs.
Valley Food Storage Dairy Free Cereal
Valley Food seems to be more known for large bundles of food supplies, like 30 or 90 days. Erin recommended that customers call them to put together allergy safe bundles — they are happy to swap out bad options based on your needs.
We really like that the bags they package their foods in are resealable. They claim a 25-year shelf life for freeze dried food, and we found their prices reasonable for freeze dried pouches.
Millennium Energy Bars
For more portable snack options, the Millennium Energy Bars have 400 calories and do not contain peanuts or dairy.
Unfortunately, in our searching we have yet to find a gluten-free calorie block from any manufacturer.
Larabars are part of my everyday carry because they are tasty, filling, and display easy-to-understand ingredients labels. They are Gluten-free, non-GMO, vegan, soy-free, and dairy-free.
Larabar Fruit & Nut Bars
All Larabar products contain tree nuts. But we have never had a reaction to the ones that do not contain peanuts, and couldn’t find any stories from others during our research, so we assume their manufacturing process is proper.
Prepare your own allergen-safe emergency food
Do It Yourself food prep methods give you the most bang for your buck and peace of mind that you know exactly what the ingredients are.
As always, be mindful of cross-contact, and wash any equipment and your hands before and after. If you’re going to use equipment like a dehydrator for other foods with allergens, try using dedicated mats or parchment paper.
Dehydration vs. freeze drying
There are important differences between these two DIY options:
- A good dehydrator will cost you a few hundred dollars, compared to the thousands of dollars for freeze dryers.
- Freeze dried food has a longer shelf life and keeps more of the nutrients.
- Dehydrated food is smaller. It literally shrinks as the water is removed.
- Freeze dried food is quicker to prepare for eating because you just have to re-heat it, whereas dehydrated food takes time to absorb water back in.
- But you can eat dehydrated food as-is, like the flat fruit chips you buy at the store.
There are two ways you can make dehydrated meals: making individual ingredients and packaging them alone, or making batches of ready-to-cook meals and packaging them so that all you need to do is add water.
Pouches that just need water are quicker and easier, especially for your field bags. Batches of individual ingredients make it easier to cook different customized meals and are a good option for your home supplies.
This video shows the basics of home dehydrating. We like the Backpacking Chef website for in-depth instructions based on what foods you’re preparing.
Our pick for most people:
Excalibur 3926TB Food Dehydrator
We’ve tested various dehydrators for normal and survival use, and think the Excalibur 3926 is the best pick for most people. This unit is well-known for its quality and durability. There are more expensive options, but the $330 Excalibur ($179 for the 4-tray model) is popular and we don’t think the more expensive options are worth it.
The Excalibur is the same model you see in the video above. This model has an Amazon rating of 4.6/5 from more than 3,000 reviews. One trusted reviewer called it “the holy grail of dehydrators.”
The Excalibur is efficient and pretty hands-off. Because the trays are square, and not round with holes in them, you get more surface area to dry on. This translates to more food at once, saving you time and energy. It’s also larger than our budget pick below.
Great entry level choice:
Nesco FD-75A Snackmaster Pro Food Dehydrator
The Nesco Snackmaster is a great entry level dehydrator at $85. It has enough of the right features to be useful. The built-in fan means you don’t have to rotate foods as they process, something other budget options sometimes lack. The Snackmaster comes with a couple of mesh sheets and solid sheets, and you can buy additional trays to fit your needs.
There’s a few ways to store the food once you’ve prepared it. The FoodSaver FM2100 vacuum sealer is a great option for most people.
The FoodSaver bags are nice because you can pour hot water into the pouches to cook your food. Standard mylar bags usually have a plastic layer and thus you shouldn’t cook inside the pouches, unless you buy ones specifically designed otherwise like these pouches with included oxygen absorbers.
Freeze dryer recommendations
Freeze drying is the process used by off-the-shelf products like Mountain House. The end result is great for survival situations but for a long time freeze dryers were too expensive to be practical at $10,000-$20,000.
The introduction of the Harvest Right Freeze Dryer brought down the price enough to become a realistic option for most people with a long-term view. A small unit starts out at $2600, medium at $2900, and large at $3600.
That’s still a chunk of change, but at least you’ll have full control and peace of mind with your meals for many years ahead. Having a freeze dryer at home means that you can prepare delicious foods that you know are safe for your family and full of healthy ingredients. It’s great for larger home stores and smaller ready-to-cook pouches for your survival bags.
Home freeze dryers do require regular maintenance, including oil changes, but there are forums filled with people giving advice on how to economically take care of your equipment.
We like this YouTube channel that tries different food in the Harvest Right Freeze Dryer and covers some common maintenance. There are some limitations as to what freeze dries well, but you can freeze dry a surprising range of meals. As long as the food is not extremely oily or fatty, it will freeze dry.
Canning is cost effective and a great option for long-term storage, especially for your home supplies. We’ve read and recommend the Ball Book on Canning and Preserving, which covers the basics of canning and starter recipes, or this book for pressure canning.
The types of foods that you are able to can is going to depend on the equipment that you have on hand. A lot of high acid foods are able to be made safe for long term storage by simply processing them in a boiling water bath for the proper amount of time.
Best pressure canner:
Presto 23-Quart Pressure Canner
Canning low acid vegetables and things like stews will need a pressure canner, but they’re not too expensive. We recommend the Presto 23-Quart Pressure Canner and Cooker with an extra rack for more cross-contamination prevention. The Presto is well reviewed with 4.8 out of 5 stars from over 14,500 reviews on Amazon. It’s warp-resistant, easy for newbies, and more portable than similar options.
Stocking a large number of lids for your jars is necessary for long-term grid-down use. Jars will break, either from frequent use or accidents. Ball and Kerr jars are high quality and stand up well to pressure canning. Off-brand jars can be fine, but do tend to break more often when used for pressure canning.
Staying safe during an emergency
Your two biggest risks in the field are cross contamination and eating something that contains your allergen by mistake.
Have the right utensils and soap in your supplies
Preventing cross contamination is pretty easy if you keep your eyes open and make a few important purchases for your kits.
Most of the food recommended for emergency bags is self contained, meaning you cook it in whatever packaging it comes in. Like the Mountain House packets were you pour in boiling water, zip the pouch closed, and let it cook.
Even if your personal preference is to have your food cooked in a pot because you prefer the taste, it is generally safer to use the food in its original container when possible. It’s like abstinence — if your food never touches surfaces that you’re unsure about, then you can’t get sick.
Think of allergens as poisons. If you wouldn’t risk it with something deadly, don’t risk it with allergens.
The material that your gear is made out of makes a huge difference. Pick gear that is made from sturdy metals or tempered glass, like this metal camping pot by Zebra. Porous materials like wood and easily scratchable surfaces like plastic and cheap metal have little pockets where allergens can hide during normal cleaning.
Light My Fire Titanium Spork
Campsuds 8oz Concentrated Soap
The same goes for storage containers and eating utensils. For example, if you have to prepare your own emergency food because you can’t buy off-the-shelf, then use metal containers or package in new mylar bags. We also like keeping a metal spork in our bags, and have used this great Light My Fire Titanium Spork for six years.
Soap and something to scrub or clean with is all you need. You don’t need any special chemicals or methods. Our favorite small and light soap for our emergency kits is Campsuds. Not only can you use it for your cookware, it is safe to use for your body.
Communicate and clean when you’re in the field
Tell the people you’re with about your allergies. This isn’t the time to be embarrassed, and it doesn’t mean you create a burden for others. The real burden would be if you go into shock because you didn’t speak up and they have to spend time treating your allergic reaction. Food allergies are out of your control. There is no reason to be embarrassed for taking care of yourself and minimizing the impact to your group.
If you’re in a shelter or working with emergency personnel, be calm but clear that you have a severe food allergy and don’t be afraid to ask questions. Of course they might not know or have a million other exploding grenades to deal with, so be empathetic and patient.
Always try to cook for the allergic person first. It’s easier to do a proper clean once mealtime is over for everyone rather than trying to clean in the middle of different people cooking dinner. So when it’s mealtime again, you have more confidence that the surfaces are cleaned and ready to use instead of risking that someone forgot or did it poorly midway through the meal.
Soap is your friend and there aren’t any big tricks or chemicals needed. Make sure you wash your hands well before preparing foods. Give any food surfaces a thorough cleaning with (preferably warm) water and soap.
Even if you are just boiling water you need to make sure that the pot is clean. Food proteins are not destroyed in high heat, so someone could have a reaction if the water was boiled in a contaminated container.
Treating an allergic reaction during an emergency
Anaphylactic shock during a crisis or while off the grid is going to be sudden and scary, and there’s no way around that. Even a non-anaphylactic reaction is going to slow you and your group down.
We won’t go into much detail about how to treat someone in shock because you should have that knowledge already. You should know and practice things like understanding the symptoms of anaphylaxis, how to make decisions like when not to use antihistamines (which can mask the symptoms of real anaphylactic shock), when to give a second EpiPen shot, and so on. We do recommend having some rehydration salts in your med kit.
Best way to keep epinephrine at the right temperature
The first line of treatment for anaphylaxis is epinephrine, commonly known as an EpiPen. There is no other medication that works as well as epinephrine. It’s relatively common in daily life (like medical kits in shopping malls) but is tough in emergency situations because they have to be kept at certain temperatures and they have a relatively short shelf life.
Note that even though many EpiPens advertise an expiration date of 12-18 months, new research in 2017 suggests that they are effective for up to four years. Though the medication may be less than full strength, it may still be enough to save someone’s life.
But there are some special challenges for keeping epinephrine at full strength. All forms of epinephrine must be kept between 59-86 degrees Fahrenheit, ideally around 77 degrees. Epinephrine is also light sensitive and should be stored in the dark. As a somewhat fragile medical device, you also want to protect it from being crushed in your kit.
Best field case for EpiPens:
Frio Insulin Cooling Wallet
To be blunt, there are no great options for having properly stored EpiPens in major SHTF situations. But after reviewing a few different products, we recommend the Frio Insulin Cooling Wallet. The biggest reason is that the Frio doesn’t need to be refrigerated to be “charged” — it’s activated with cool water, which is something you’d be able to get in most situations. It is not powerful enough to take a warm medication and make it viable again.
The Frio cooling wallet is well reviewed, relatively durable, and won’t take up too much space in your survival bags even though it holds two standard EpiPens. However, you might want to get creative and store it inside a hard shell to prevent any crushing.
If you find yourself without a proper storage method, be smart about using what you have available. If it’s warm out, try wrapping the epinephrine in a wool sock or water activated cooling towel within a glasses case or other container. If it’s winter, wrap it in cloth and keep it next to your body for warmth.