Fact or Myth: Is the 5-Second Rule True?

This is a MYTH.

As much as we’d like to believe that the delectable scoop of cookie-dough ice cream that just toppled from its cone onto the floor is still edible if picked up in five seconds or less, it’s just not true. Bacteria lurk everywhere…tiles, wood floors, carpets…and cause food borne illnesses that manifest as fever, diarrhea and flu-like symptoms. The bout of flu you just tackled could have been caused by bacteria on that cookie you ate from the floor last week in a lightening-speed two seconds!

According to the CDC’s National Center for Infectious Diseases, food borne illnesses attack 76 million Americans every year, and of those 300,000 are hospitalized and 5000 die. Small children, seniors and people with compromised immune systems are at an increased risk. Those statistics should be enough to keep you from rescuing your grandma’s freshly baked chocolate chip cookie from the floor…even if it touched for a brief millisecond!

food on floorHow Many Seconds Does it Take?

Contamination acts in milliseconds, not seconds. Results from research conducted by Clemson University food scientist Paul Dawson and published in the Journal of Applied Microbiology show that as soon as food makes contact with the floor it picks up bacteria. How much bacteria it contracts depends on the floor’s surface and the consistency of the food: the wetter the floor, the more bacteria; likewise, the wetter the food, the greater the risk. A cracker picks up far less bacteria than a sticky wet hot dog does. If a piece of gum falls onto the carpet…forget about it!

Another interesting study awarded the IG Nobel Prize in 2004 (given to research that “first makes you laugh, then makes you think”) also confirmed a bacteria transfer from surface to food in less than five seconds, thereby debunking the 5-second rule. That same study collected samples from the floors of the lab, hall, dormitory and cafeteria of University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and found surprisingly few bacteria. Those were, of course, dry floors and most pathogens (salmonella, listeria, E. coli) thrive on damper surfaces.

Who’s A Rule Follower?

Students at Urbana-Champaign followed their research up with a survey on the 5-second rule. Seventy percent of women polled had heard of the rule, compared to fifty-six percent of men. Who is more likely to pick up the food from the floor and eat it? Men! Although they were admittedly more tempted by a sugary treat than a healthy vegetable.

So…is the 5-second rule true? Experts think not, but if you must eat that piece of chocolate that fell on the floor, please…give it a good washing!