Like Your Food? Thank a Trucker

When the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) last month reported food price inflation of only 3.7 percent, few seemed to notice. That figure is almost double the food inflation rate since the early 1990s but still way below the numbers posted following the COVID-19 pandemic and the enormous disruption to the food system that followed.

As the Washington Post observed, “Overall, inflation is trending in the right direction.”

In the Covid era, food manufacturers and retailers had a single over-riding priority: Do whatever it takes to keep the pipeline of food as full as possible. Find whatever supplies of the food products consumers wanted and expected of the most modern and efficient food system in human history. Pay whatever needed to be paid to secure those products and see them delivered. Maintaining supply became the universal mantra.

Without a doubt, our food system did a magnificent job of rising to the challenges posed by the Covid era – and the demands of the public. Spot shortages and supply disruptions captured a lot of attention, but by and large, they remained the exception far more than the rule and an inconvenience more than a threat to consumer well-being.

A Sign of the Times

But rising to the challenge came with a cost: food inflation at record or near-record levels. Consumers seemed more than willing to ante up for the food we all want – at least for a while. We’re now seeing early signs that willingness to pay more and more for our food is giving way to a new consumer attitude – one of cost-consciousness that is leading more and more food manufacturers and retailers to shift gears.

Consumers are showing increasing resistance to inexorable food price increases. More and more of us are turning to store brands… price shopping across suppliers… taking more advantage of sales and promotions… simply choosing to look at less-expensive meal alternatives…and more. Some disgruntled food shoppers have even resorted to – gasp – doing without.

In simple terms, price has become an increasingly important consideration for consumers.

A May 2022 study by Ernst & Young found that nearly three of every five consumers say price is their foremost purchase consideration. Two of three consumers say it will become the most critical consideration in the next three years.

The food sector seems to have taken this shift in attitude to heart. They are asking hard questions of suppliers, seeking to bring more pricing discipline to all aspects of their operations. Food manufacturers and retailers report spending more and more time examining opportunities for cost-reducing innovations and making smart investments in new technologies that enhance productivity.

But the single factor of unpredictability most often cited in Dirt to Dinner: the human element. And the portion of our food system most vulnerable to this unpredictability: transportation, and in particular, the trucking industry.

Trucking’s Consequential Labor Issues

Managers and operators across the food chain have reported a widespread lack of the people needed to do many of the fundamental manual tasks demanded by the entire food chain. Work crews are needed to do the hard, often back-breaking work of harvesting and initial transportation of commodities and food products. Farm managers complain bitterly of a lack of willing workers to do the daily arduous tasks that come with daily farm and ranch life, especially in dairy. Even farm-service suppliers report shortages of mechanics, service technicians, and others vital to maintaining routine farm and ranch operations.

No labor shortage provides greater cause for concern than the trucking sector.

The statistics can be mind-numbing. According to the American Trucking Association (ATA), trucks move about 73 percent – yes, almost three-quarters – of the nation’s freight. That’s about 11.5 billion tons. Nearly 14 million trucks are on the road today, traveling over 327 billion miles.

The U.S. Department of Transportation reports over 750,000 active U.S. carriers. More than 95 percent of those operate ten or fewer trucks. The industry employs 8.4 million individuals as drivers or in support roles, with about 1.4 million actual drivers.

As impressive as the trucking industry statistics may be, they don’t explain the cause for concern from the food industry. 

Trucks provide the common element across the entire food chain, providing the connective glue that brings food from dirt to dinner. Trucks bring farm inputs, transport commodities, animals, and ingredients from farm to collection points to food plants and production facilities. They carry finished food products to distributors and retailers and increasingly, to home delivery. A half-dozen trucks – or more – may be involved in the journey from dirt to dinner. When trucking services fail at any link in the chain, the likely result is system disruption – and supply interruption, and higher costs.

During the Covid pandemic, reports of a shortage of truck drivers were common. Food industry and transportation experts contacted by Dirt to Dinner report common problems with securing reliable truck services and cite this uncertainty as a significant factor behind the food sector’s efforts to secure contractual commitments from larger, proven, reliable suppliers.

Managers at large food companies report delays in service delivery and the growing issue of simple communications. “More and more of the drivers simply don’t speak English,” as one logistic manager explained. “You can imagine the problems that can create.”

Driver Shortage…or Driver Retention?

Those comments point to the debate within transportation circles about the existence of a “driver shortage.” Some prefer to call it a “driver retention” problem.

According to this point of view, the real problem is the simple unwillingness of people to accept the harsh demands of the profession. Extended periods of time away from home, constant travel, unfamiliar food, long spells of downtime, and boredom in strange locales have proven unattractive to prospective truckers. Even those anxious to find work and attracted to the ‘open road and personal freedom’ of trucking seem to become disillusioned and move on to work that offers something closer to the quality of life they seek – time at home, with family and friends, especially.

The industry has no choice but to adapt to these changing worker expectations, according to trucking industry figures. It begins with economics – meaning more pay. BLS reports an 2020 average truck driver salary of $48,710, rising to $49,920 in May 2022.

The agency agrees with food industry executives that demand for professional heavy and tractor-trailer drives will continue to grow, at a projected 4 percent per year through 2032. That works out to roughly 241,000 openings per year.

Observers of the trucking industry acknowledge the aggressive and creative efforts of the industry to improve driver conditions and adapt to changing expectations of potential drivers. They also note the special effort being made to attract more women to the profession – and more married driver teams.

But they also emphasize the need to move quickly – or see the recovery of our overall economy (and our food sector) sputter.

The Ins & Outs of Mushroom Products

Mushrooms have been enjoyed for ages, not just because they’re delicious, but also for their amazing health perks! Recent studies have shown that mushrooms are packed with essential vitamins, minerals, fiber, and special compounds that are great for your overall health.

As people become more curious about these advantages, mushroom supplements have popped up as a handy way to tap into their potential, making it easier to reap the benefits without relying solely on eating them.

Nutritional Benefits of Mushrooms

We at Dirt to Dinner have tried a variety of mushroom powders and supplements. We love sources that have proven cognitive and immune benefits but we always want to know that our sources are the best.

Mushrooms are a natural source of essential nutrients such as B vitamins (riboflavin, niacin, pantothenic acid), minerals (potassium, copper, selenium), and dietary fiber. They also contain unique bioactive compounds such as flavonoids, β-glucans, ergosterol (a precursor of vitamin D), and various polyphenols. These compounds have been linked to immune system modulation, antioxidant activity, and potential anti-inflammatory effects.

Mushroom varieties like Shiitake (Lentinula edodes) and Reishi (Ganoderma lucidum) have been extensively studied for their health-promoting properties. Shiitake, for instance, contains lentinan, a polysaccharide with immunomodulatory effects. Reishi mushrooms are known for their triterpenoids, which exhibit potential antitumor and anti-inflammatory activities.

Lion’s Mane (Hericium erinaceus) is another medicinal mushroom with a unique appearance, resembling cascading white icicles. Beyond its culinary uses, Lion’s Mane has gained attention for its potential health benefits, particularly in the realm of cognitive health and neurological well-being. It contains bioactive compounds, including erinacines and hericenones, that have shown neuroprotective effects and the ability to support brain health.

Lions Mane can also stimulate Nerve Growth Factor (NGF), which contributes to nerve cell maintenance and repair. It can help form new neurons, combat cognitive decline, and enhance memory and attention—truly incredible cognitive benefits!

Mushroom Supplements & Benefits

Back in February of this year, market reports had some exciting news. The global functional mushroom market, which covers everything from mushroom-based foods and drinks to supplements, was valued at a whopping $50.3 billion! And guess what? It’s still on the rise!

Now, let’s talk about the real heroes here – mushroom supplements. They’re all the rage! There are lots of brands out there crafting these powerhouse formulations, making it super easy to bring the magic of mushrooms into your daily routine. They come in all sorts of forms like powders, extracts, capsules, and tinctures. It’s like a mushroom smorgasbord. 

These supplement folks make a big deal about specific compounds like β-glucans, polysaccharides, or triterpenoids because they’re like the secret sauce behind the potential health perks. But here’s the real question: how can we be sure we’re getting a top-notch product? Is it just about the formulation or are there other considerations?

Here are some key factors to consider when assessing supplement quality and ensuring the authenticity:

Ingredient Transparency:

  • Reputable manufacturers should clearly list the mushroom species used and the active compounds present in their products. Generic terms like “mushroom extract” or “mushroom blend” without specifying the species should be approached with caution.
  • Each mushroom species has a scientific name that consists of two parts: the genus and the species. For example, Lion’s Mane’s scientific name is Hericium erinaceus. Verify that the scientific names of the mushrooms are provided on the label to ensure accurate identification.
  • Country origin should also be listed on their label, as some regions are known for producing high-quality mushrooms due to optimal growing conditions and cultivation practices- those include Japan, the U.S., Canada, Korea, Netherlands, Poland, and Germany.

Testing for Active Compounds:

  • High-quality, reputable supplements undergo testing to verify the presence and concentration of specific bioactive compounds, such as beta-glucans or triterpenoids, which contribute to the mushroom’s health benefits.
  • The label should indicate the concentration or standardized amount of these compounds. Avoid anything with “proprietary blends” as they may hide specific ingredients.

Third-Party Verification:

  • There are three main third-party verifiers,  The United States Pharmacopeia (USP), The National Sanitation Foundation (NSF), and ConsumerLab. Be sure to research the brand to ensure it has obtained certifications from one of these independent organizations that ensure potency, authenticity and quality.
  • If you’re still uncertain about a product’s authenticity, consider consulting healthcare professionals or experts who specialize in herbal or nutritional supplements. They can provide guidance based on their expertise and knowledge.

What do the Experts Say?


We had a chance to talk to executives with MUD WTR, a mushroom coffee substitute brand that broke into the market and has gained a lot of attention. They had a lot to say about ‘shrooms!

We asked their take on third-party verifications, they noted that these can be prohibitively expense to obtain. Most reputable mushroom companies, with sound sources, transparency with their growth methods, and formulations are just as good as those who jumped through hoops to get the certifications.

That said, MUD WTR is committed to transparency, even working to add a nutrient label to their packaging so consumers know just how much of each nutrient they are getting! So, if you are looking for other great mushroom brands, if you don’t see a certification, be sure to look on their sites for transparency with sourcing and growing methods.

Other experts, Paul Stamets and Steve Farrar, two trailblazing mycologists in the fascinating world of mushrooms, have left an indelible mark and played a significant role in shaping the strategies of numerous mushroom brands. Their expertise and insights have been a guiding light for brands as they develop their mushroom-based products.

While Paul Stamets and Steve Farrar may have slightly differing perspectives on certain mushroom-related matters, there’s one critical point on which they find common ground: sourcing.

Stamets and Farrar’s resounding advice is to stick with mushrooms cultivated in the United States.

This approach not only supports local agriculture, but also prioritizes safety and product quality. 

How are mushrooms grown?

Mushroom cultivation is a complex process that significantly influences their nutritional content. An intricate interplay of factors, such as the growing medium, ambient conditions, and light exposure, collectively shapes the mushrooms’ nutritional composition. Some mushroom species, such as reishi and shiitake, possess compounds with immune-enhancing attributes. Recognizing the nuances of cultivation practices empowers consumers to make informed choices about the mushrooms they consume. Debatably, the substrate in which they were grown is the most critical factor in their nutrient density.

Hence the importance of sourcing and transparency- to understand the conditions of which the mushrooms are grown. Reputable mushrooms brands will share their sourcing on their sites so you can check to make sure they are US grown.  Most brands chose to grown their mushrooms on oats, as they provide the most nutrient density to the fruiting portion of the mushroom.

Check out these brands, who either hold the third-party certifications and/or are committed to transparency around sourcing and growing:

  • OM Mushrooms: Sourced in the US, this brand also has the BRC AA Rating, a coveted food safety rating. About halfway down this page you will see the section- “Growth Medium Matters” where the brand details that these mushrooms are grown on oats!
  • Host Defense: Host Defense is founded by Paul Stamets, a renowned mycologist. They produce a variety of mushroom supplements made from organically grown mushrooms. Their commitment to quality and sustainability is notable. Check out their R&D page, which details some of the 77 studies he has co-authored and applied sciences to his formulations.
  • Four Sigmatic: Check out the video on this page– where they discuss using the fruiting body, meaning they use no mycelium or filler grains, they use third party labs to test for toxins like heavy metals and mycotoxins as I mentioned previously, which is a real concern.
  • Pure Essence Labs: While not exclusively a mushroom supplement brand, Pure Essence Labs includes mushrooms in some of their formulations, emphasizing their health benefits alongside other nutrients. They explain at the bottom of the linked page what they are grown on—rice or barley!

Knowing how much mushroom product is in each of these supplements can be a challenge. Thankfully, Pure Essence Labs provides an example to calculate the volume of mushrooms present in your supplements:

Product A: MyPure™ Cordyceps – 500 mg of cordyceps 1:1 extract

  1. Multiply the first number of the extract ratio by 10. (e.g., 1 x 10 = 10)
  2. Multiply the amounts of each extract present by the numbers derived from step one. (e.g., 500 mg x 10 = 5,000 mg)

Product B: MyPure™ Cordyceps 4X – 300 mg of cordyceps 1:1 extract and 200 mg of 10:1 extract

  1. Multiply the first number of the extract ratio by 10. (e.g., 1 x 10 = 10 and 10 x 10 = 100)
  2. Multiply the amounts of each extract present by the numbers derived from step one. (e.g., [300 mg x 10 = 3,000 mg] + [200 mg x 100 = 20,000 mg] = 23,000 mg)

By following these steps and practicing due diligence, you can make more informed decisions when choosing mushroom supplements and ensure that you’re getting authentic and high-quality ingredients.

How AI Can Supercharge Our Food

“It is not what you eat that causes diseases; it is what you don’t eat that is the problem.” 

What is a Bioactive Compound?

If you want to live to be 100, a key strategy is to eat two servings of fruit and three servings of vegetables daily. We at D2D wanted to know: WHY?

The answer: It is all in the bioactives – the keys to a healthy life. One of the most innovative advancements in nutrition is using bioactives – a group of naturally occurring compounds that significantly affect the human body. They are naturally occurring and are found most densely in fruits and vegetables. Now, with the support of artificial intelligence, nutrition researchers and technology can uncover and harness the full potential of these compounds, leading to better health outcomes for everyone.

You have heard of them. Terms such as curcumin, resveratrol, flavonoids, ascorbic acid, and even caffeine to name a few. These, plus thousands more, are tiny molecules that have an effect, usually good, on a living organism, tissue, or cell.  Compounds like these keep your heart ticking, immune system ready, muscles strong, cells rejuvenating, and diseases at bay.

Bioactives unlock specific receptors in our body that trigger a cascade of biological responses that can support our health at every level.”

– Jim Flatt, Co-Founder and CEO

Blueberries are truly a great example of a superfood, packed with a variety of essential bioactive compounds. Just a handful every single day have been shown to support cardiovascular, cognitive, and metabolic health. Hence the term, ‘superfood’. But you need to eat them for this to happen….

Their most notable compounds are flavonoids, a type of polyphenol, particularly anthocyanins, which give blueberries their distinctive color. Evidence has shown that these compounds are the ones that can support your heart and your brain. But that is not all. Blueberries are packed with antioxidants, which protect our bodies from damaging free radicals, thereby bolstering our immune system.

Quercetin and Myricetin fight against free radicals and support cardiovascular and overall health. Blueberries are also abundant in essential vitamins like C, K, and E, and vital minerals including manganese, zinc, and iron. Finally, blueberries contain dietary fiber. You can see why they are a superfood.

Though it’s crucial for us to get the multitude of health benefits from fruits and vegetables, sometimes we have to eat a lot to get what we need.  For instance, it is suggested that we get 500 mg of quercetin a day. But you would have to eat about 33 cups of blueberries to get that same amount as they have about 15 mg per cup. We singled out blueberries as a prime example, and my favorite fruit, but every single fruit or vegetable has its own unique family of bioactive compounds.

Plants not only give us food but also clothing, fuel, materials, personal care, and medicine. But we only know about 1% of all the natural plant molecules. The rest are considered the ‘dark matter’ of plants. But imagine if you had a database of the remaining 99% of all bioactives and their health benefits. Imagine if you could utilize artificial intelligence to match bioactive compounds with a solution to a specific human health issue.  That is exactly what Brightseed is doing.

What is Brightseed?

Brightseed, a San Francisco Bay Area startup, is on a ‘mission to restore human health.’ They are considered the pioneers in discovering bioactive compounds and developing innovative ingredients to fuel the proactive health movement. Brightseed is known for their novel and innovative approach using their proprietary artificial intelligence technology, Forager. Forager combs two databases to match a bioactive compound solution for a human disease.


Brightseed scientists begin by examining edible and medicinal plants used by populations worldwide. This includes mining existing databases and producing original data by sourcing specimens from around the globe to feed into Forager.  They then identify the plant compounds and load them into the Forager database. By 2025, this database will host the largest natural compound library in the world.

To date, Forager has mapped 4 million plant compounds – which is 40x more than what is known in published scientific literature – and has identified more than 30,000 predicted bioactives across 22 health areas. Built on their machine learning platform., Forager works in three parts: it predicts bioactive plant sources; it predicts the health benefits triggered in the body;  and it predicts which plants contain each bioactive compound solution for human disease.

Brightseed uses this computational intelligence to ‘illuminate the world of plant compounds’ at a much deeper level and much faster than human research capabilities.  Forager takes the guesswork out of where to begin for clinical research. As a result, the discovery time is 10x faster than traditional research, with a hit rate of 100x higher than pharmaceuticals.

What is in the pipeline?

Brightseed’s Bio Gut Fiber

For instance, the team at Brightseed will ask a question such as, “What bioactive compound can support a healthy gut barrier function?” After inputting the question into Forager, it searches for a match. In this case, Forager found a bioactive compound in the waste stream of hemp to strengthen human gut lining in order to support a healthy gut barrier function.

95% of Americans don’t eat enough fiber, so you may have heard of ‘leaky gut’? Digestion breaks down our food into nutrients to be used by our body to keep us healthy and strong. These nutrients are absorbed through the gut lining into our bloodstream. Think of a screen with very tiny holes. ‘Leaky gut’ is when those holes get too big and more than just nutrients flow into the blood, like bacteria or pathogenic organisms, neither of which you want in your blood.

Forager isolated two compounds: N-trans-caffeoyl tyramine (NCT) and N-trans-feruloyl tyramine (NFT). Why are these important?  They are bioactives found in Brightseed’s proprietary Bio Gut Fiber that gives integrity to the gut lining, helps fill in the leaky holes, and keeps the gut lining strong.

After further research, Brightseed created their proprietary Bio Gut Fiber that can be added to a protein bar, fiber supplement, or even a cookie that can support gut health if eaten daily.

Time to go to sleep

‘What bioactive compound can be isolated to help people fall asleep and stay asleep?” Sleep disorders affect between 50 to 70 million Americans. The older one becomes, the harder it is to sleep, especially for women. Many sleep problems are related to stress- thinking and worrying about the day’s events.

Pharmavite, a supplement company with the purpose of ‘to bring the gift of health to life’ wanted to bring a natural healthy supplement for restorative sleep to market. They collaborated with Brightseed to find a bioactive compound to help sleep and manage stress. Forager found 11 high-efficacy candidates for improving sleep and 16 for stress.  As of this writing, they are in the testing and trial phases.

This is not just limited to human nutrition. Harnessing the power of bioactive compounds can benefit industries such as pharmaceuticals, consumer health, food & and beverage, agriculture, personal care, and animal health. Some of their partnerships today include Danone, Pharmavite, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Ocean Spray, Archer Daniels Midland, and Food Ingredients First. These partnerships are leveraging the power of bioactive to target chronic health conditions such as obesity, diabetes, gut health, and cardiovascular disease.

Getting the Word Out

Brightseed is committed to raising awareness about the important role of bioactives in human health. They have formed a ‘Bioactives Coalition’ with food and health system leaders as advocates for bioactives. They would also like to educate on the scientific evidence to promote these compounds in functional foods, beverages, and supplements.  Their goal is to make them a part of everyday conversation and dietary guidelines.

“Technology and AI are revolutionizing the relationship between food and medicine, revealing the connections between farming practices, soil health, and bioactives as indicators of food’s nutritional value,”

– Ashlie Burkart, MD, CM Chief Scientific Officer at Germin8 Ventures. Associate with the Beifer Center’s Environment and Natural Resources Program, Harvard Kennedy School

Bioactives on the Plate

But if you are still unconvinced about eating your plants, here’s a snapshot of some additional research about why we need to eat our fruits and vegetables.

Cranberries: A study published in the journal Advances in Nutrition highlighted the potential health benefits of cranberries. A powerhouse of bioactive compounds, cranberries contain a myriad of phytonutrients, including phenolic acids, proanthocyanins, anthocyanins, flavonoids, and triterpenoids. These compounds exhibit potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, which can combat oxidative stress and inflammation – two underlying factors in many chronic diseases.

Black Garlic: A review article published in Molecules discussed the impact of black garlic and its bioactive components on human health. Pre-clinical trials have shown promising effects that black garlic can prevent several diseases. Most of these benefits can be attributed to its anti-oxidation, anti-inflammation, anti-obesity, hepatoprotection, hypolipidemia, anti-cancer, anti-allergy, immunomodulation, nephroprotection, cardiovascular protection, and neuroprotection.

Strawberries: A study published in the International Journal of Molecular Sciences revealed that strawberries, particularly their achenes (seeds), are a significant source of antioxidants and other bioactive compounds, contributing to the prevention of inflammation, oxidative stress, cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, cancer, and obesity.

Tomatoes: According to a review in the Foods Journal, tomatoes are rich in various bioactive compounds, including antioxidants, which play a role in preventing degenerative diseases, diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, eye disease, and cancer. Tomatoes can also improve blood circulation, reduce cholesterol, detoxify toxins, reduce inflammation, and prevent premature aging, among other benefits.

Digging in: Julie Holmstrom, CPG Foods Strategist

Julie Holmstrom is a distinguished Food, Agriculture, and Consumer Packaged Goods Consultant with over three decades of international experience in driving opportunities through comprehensive strategy implementation and Research and Development (R&D) expertise.

Formerly serving as Innovation Technology & Quality Director, Nutrition and Technology Solutions at General Mills, her extensive career spans across the globe, where she has consistently excelled in steering product, process, and packaging development and renovation across diverse categories.

As a technical strategist, Julie possesses a remarkable ability to bridge the gap between technical possibilities and consumer demands, aligning these aspects seamlessly with business objectives.