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The 5-Second Rule: Should You Eat It or Not?

You're eating a chocolate chip cookie or, if you're being good, a stalk of celery. Suddenly, butterfingers that you are, it tumbles out of your hands and onto the floor.

"Five second rule!" you exclaim while quickly picking it up. You then shove that last bite into your mouth.

So, is there any truth to the 5-second rule -- is the cookie or celery still perfectly safe? Or are you now destined to be sick?

The 5-Second Rule Defined

The 5-second rule is one of North America's most popular old wives' tales.

The "rule" is that food that has fallen on the floor is still safe to eat IF you pick it up within five seconds of it landing on the ground. It is common to cite the rule aloud when you've accidentally dropped food you've been enjoying in front of other people - it apparently voids the gross aspect of the act and enables you to resume eating it without anyone passing judgment.

But as with most things, it is not that simple.

Fact is, the 5-second rule isn't really a rule at all.

Fact is, food dropped on the floor or ground can be rendered risky to eat in well under five seconds.

Having a random rule justifying the consumption of food dropped on the floor within a certain time frame is convenient, especially when it's a cookie. Unfortunately, tests (and logic) confirm that germs will stick to most foods right on contact.

Some Dropped Foods Riskier Than Others

Though this old wives' tale may have started off as a joke, many people (especially many youth) obviously believe it's true, as citing the rule and then consuming the dropped food is the norm. And it is likely that no matter what proof they're given, they'll continue to believe the rule if they desire the food they dropped enough.

Still, the reality is that most surfaces contain germs and bacteria, and the floors inside and ground outside are no exception.

It is true that drier foods, like crackers or cookies, are less likely to pick up unwanted particles than wetter foods, like cheese and ice cream. But as any type of food can pick up germs, and as it is usually unknown how many potentially dangerous germs any given surface has, your best bet is to ignore the "5-second rule" (or even the less-common variation, the "3-second rule") and dispose of the food … no matter how delicious it was.

Test Results Are In ... 5 Seconds Gets a D-

Jillian Clarke, a high school senior who was doing a seven-week internship at the University of Illinois in 2003, and doctoral candidate Meredith Agle, conducted a study on the five-second rule.

After taking swab samples from various floors around campus, they looked at them under a microscope and surprisingly concluded that in a majority of cases, dry floors did not contain significant amounts of bacteria and might be safe to eat from.

So if you are certain that the floor you dropped your soft pretzel on is truly clean, perhaps this is a license to go ahead and dine off of it.

However, Clarke wanted to test the five-second rule in cases where the floor was known to be contaminated to see how significant, if at all, the bacteria would be on a food item within five seconds.

She spread E.Coli on both rough and smooth floor tiles in a laboratory, placed pieces of gummy bears and cookies on the tiles for various amounts of time, and then examined the foods under the microscope. All the foods had a significant amount of bacteria after LESS than five seconds.

Not enough to convince you?

The five-second rule was also featured in an episode of the Discovery Channel series MythBusters with hosts Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman. The two wanted to test the validity of the five-second rule themselves.

According to a recent Electrolux Home Care Products (EHCP) survey, nearly half of all Americans confessed they would consider picking up and eating food they've dropped on the floor. Studies show carpet can hide as much as 10 times its own weight in dirt, and the average family tracks roughly three pounds of dirt into their homes each week. Are you sure about the "five-second rule"?

Their results were similar to Clarke's test - time is NOT a factor when food is exposed to bacteria. Even two seconds' exposure on the ground is more than enough time to contaminate food.

Ugh -- Even Mashed Potatoes???

According to a survey done by Electrolux Home Care Products, the following are a list of results for the "five-second rule" research:

  • 57% of men and 37% of women would consider eating food dropped on the floor within five seconds.

  • Only 2% of Americans said they would pick up and eat food they had dropped OUTSIDE.

  • Dry snack foods such as pretzels (81%), cookies (77%), or hard candy (64%) were rated as the most likely of food items people would consider eating off the floor.

  • "Moist" foods such as an apple slice (35%), cheese (29%) or lettuce (28%) are seen as less desirable after having been dropped on the floor.

  • A surprising two percent of Americans who said they would consider eating dropped food say they would even eat mashed potatoes off the floor.

Bacteria -- Potentially Not Very Nice Ones -- Are Everywhere

Truth be told, there are levels of bacteria on every surface of every home.

For instance, your cutting board contains 200 times more bacteria than your toilet. The sink is an E.Coli haven, and the dish sponge … you don't even want to know. (But if you do want to know this and much more about germs in your home and how to most safely and effectively eliminate them, check out How One Rather Boring Revolution Means Everything to Your Health."

So the next time you drop your beloved chocolate chip cookie - or your beloved celery stick - you still have a choice to make, but now at least you are equipped with the facts. Choose wisely … and quickly.


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