Alaska News

Paleo to go: Anchorage startup makes pre-packaged trail food healthy

In 2010, Heather Kelly was headed on a rafting trip down the Grand Canyon and realized she didn't want to be eating instant oatmeal and ramen for 26 days. So she dehydrated 50 pounds of her own food to bring on the expedition instead.

It ended up being a life-changing trip in more ways than one.

Inspired by that experience, Kelly, 26, founded a backcountry food business called Heather's Choice, which officially launched last month in Anchorage. Her goal is to make the best backcountry food on the market, "a dehydrated product that's so good you'll want to eat it in the front-country as well."

Finding the most sustainable ways to source the high-quality ingredients needed for Heather's Choice products is Kelly's number-one priority. As an evolutionary sports nutritionist and certified psychology of eating coach, she advocates for what is called a paleo diet. This means no grains, dairy or processed foods, and instead eating nutrient-dense grass-fed meats, fish, good fats like coconut oil and lots of leafy greens.

Over the past few years, Kelly has traveled across the country offering seminars on paleo-eating in partnership with CrossFit gyms. She has coached hundreds of people one-on-one to help them improve their diets and relationships with food.

"I am passionate about teaching people the importance of nutrition and healthy eating," Kelly says. And through Heather's Choice, she's no longer just teaching, but also bringing high-quality and nutritious food directly to people's plates -- or camp pots.

From wild-caught Copper River salmon and Mat-Su peas and carrots in the chowder recipe to a grass-fed Homer beef and yam chili, this is camping food to believe in. Kelly picks up the ingredients herself. Everything is homemade. It's all dehydrated, packed and ready to go -- no pre-trip planning or grocery shopping needed. And whether your goal is climbing a mountain or lifting weights at the gym, Heather Kelly wants to feed you.

I went on a three-day backpacking trip in the Wrangell Mountains over Labor Day weekend and brought an assortment of Heather's Choice meals with me. The "snackaroons" (two per $5 bag), were a delightful treat on the trail, essentially chewy coconut macaroons ("coconut is full of a type of fat that gets metabolized fast," Kelly explains) and very lightly sweetened with agave or maple syrup. Varieties include lavender lemon, Mexican cocoa and key lime. I always feel like I have a brick in my stomach after eating an energy bar, and I found these to be the perfect replacement for those of you looking for something lighter to munch on. Look for these snackaroons online or at SteamDot as a healthy alternative to that afternoon pastry.

Meals come packaged in single-serving coffee bags that you only need to open and pour in boiling water. The buckwheat breakfast ($6) comes in banana cardamom, blueberry cinnamon, strawberry ginger, raspberry orange and pumpkin pie-spiced apple. This buckwheat kicks instant oatmeal's butt any day of the week. The dinner options include chili, chowder and rancheros and will not disappoint your famished stomach.

Kelly has big dreams. She tells me about her vision for Heather's Choice facilities across the country, each one making products with the local and sustainably grown or raised ingredients of the region or state. What's more, beginning in Alaska, she wants her kitchens to be completely free of the eight most common food allergens: wheat, soy, dairy, corn, peanuts, tree nuts, eggs and shellfish.

"There's such a prevalence of food allergies out there. I'm working on opening and operating the first 100-percent allergen-free commercial kitchen in Anchorage," she says. Until then, she is using the SteamDot Coffee Company's kitchen and an industrial dehydrator. Kelly estimates she will make about 4,000 meals and 100,000 snackaroons in 2015.

So what does Kelly do when she's not dehydrating food or giving seminars on nutrition? A former four-year varsity rower at Western Washington University, where she earned two NCAA national championships, and a five-year veteran of raft guiding, Kelly is an all-around adventure athlete. An Alaska-grown kid who grew up in the Chugach Mountains, she is most at home in the outdoors. Chances are you've seen her out on the trails.

The Heather's Choice business model is about providing delicious and healthy food as fuel for athletes looking for endurance in the backcountry. But is also about influencing positive change in the food system through the purchasing power one small food business can have. So get your sporks out and dig in!

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Shannon Kuhn lives in Anchorage, where she writes about food and culture.

Shannon Kuhn

Shannon Kuhn lives in Anchorage and is co-founder of the Anchorage Food Mosaic. She writes about food and culture and can be reached at (subject line: Shannon Kuhn).