Is the 5-Second Rule Legit or Totally Gross? The Verdict

We know you've all done it -- drop something on the floor, figure who cares, then pick it up and eat it. Was it a safe thing to do?

You’re home, no one else is around and something you’re eating (or just about to inhale) falls on your floor. Question: Do you pick it up and eat it anyway?

Well, if you’re slowly nodding your head in shame, you’re not alone. And here’s the good news — if you scoop it up in five seconds or less, you’re in the safe zone, according to researchers from Aston University's School of Life and Health Sciences, as reported by Science Daily.

A group of biology students decided to drop various foods (toast, pasta, biscuit and a sticky sweet) on three types of floors (carpet, laminate and tiled surfaces) and analyze the two common bacteria (bacteria E. coli and Staphylococcus aureus) that may have evolved between three to 30 seconds. Why? They wanted to see if there was any validity to the “five second rule,” the urban myth that it’s perfectly fine to eat something that has touched the floor for a maximum of five seconds.

Here’s what they discovered, as explained by lead professor Anthony Hilton: …”the findings of this study will bring some light relief to those who have been employing the five-second rule for years, despite a general consensus that it is purely a myth. We have found evidence that the transfer from indoor flooring surfaces is incredibly poor, with carpet actually posing the lowest risk of bacterial transfer onto dropped food.”

We contacted Professor Hilton and asked him at exactly which second did bacteria begin to form on “fallen food.” “Bacteria attach to the food immediately on contact of the food with the floor,” he said. “What we actually observed in our study was that if the food is retrieved from the floor immediately — in our case before 5 seconds — there were fewer bacteria on moist food types than if the food was retrieved at 30 seconds. This provides some evidence that for moist foods, the quicker you can pick them up the better.”

When it comes to dry foods, Hilton said there was no difference in bacteria levels at 30 seconds than at three seconds, which suggests that “the initial impact is the major transfer events in these food types.”

As for the type of bacteria we may be putting into our bodies, Hilton claimed the most common forms were spore-forming environmental Bacillus and Staphylococci…in other words, human skin. “In the context of ingestion, these are unlikely to make anyone ill — it would be no worse than sucking your thumb!”

So when would food on the floor become inedible? It’s difficult to say, states Hilton, since there is always a risk involved and for the simple fact that conditions matter — not just the type of flooring but the cleanliness of the environment.

Back to the question at the beginning of this column…Hilton & gang also conducted a survey where they asked people do they or don’t they eat off the floor. According to their findings:

•87 percent of people surveyed said they would eat food dropped on the floor, or have done so.

•55 percent of those that would, or have, eaten food dropped in the floor are women.

•81 percent of the women who would eat food from the floor would follow the 5-second rule.

So the next time a piece of your brownie plops on the ground, stop screaming, “Why me?” and feel free to snatch it up and scarf it down…perhaps when no one is looking.

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