15 Myths Behind the 5 Second Rule

6 minute read

By Lauren Brown

Can you remember the first time you heard someone say “5 second rule!”? If so, you likely remember how they picked something up from the ground and ate it. Start a search today to explore 15 myths behind the 5 Second Rule.

The concept that if something doesn’t lie on the ground for more than five seconds, it’s immune to anything gross and is still considered “safe” is a curious one. Unfortunately, it doesn’t have any factual foundation!

1. My floor is pretty clean anyway

You swept it last week, right? Or was it last month? But either way, it’s probably fine, right? Unfortunately… no. Bacteria and all sorts of other germs can live on surfaces for very long periods of time, even if you think you keep your place pretty clean and tidy. Ew.

2. Dry food doesn’t pick up germs

You’re right in thinking that foods with higher moisture content pick up bacteria more readily, but your cracker is still not immune. Our friends on the TV show Mythbusters found that even a dry saltine picked up contaminants when left on the floor for just a few seconds.

That being said, they didn’t appear to test what happens if you blew on it before eating it. (Just kidding — see #11.)

3. There can’t be that many nasty bugs in my house, right?

Most of the time, we drop food onto the floor (see #4) and have reason to worry, but even food that lands on our countertops or kitchen table can pick up gunk. Salmonella, E. coli, and Staphylococcus aureus are all germs commonly found in our households and if you’re not one to dust regularly, there are thousands of different types of microbes your food could pick up. Surfaces that are moist or are touched regularly (like kitchen sponges and door handles) are the highest offenders for germs.

4. I love my shoes! They can’t be dirty!

Most of us do our best to keep our shoes clean of dog ‘doo, spilled food, or slimy looking puddles, but it’s basically impossible to keep our shoes truly clean if we wear them outside of our homes.

One study found that there are at least nine different species of bacteria inhabiting our shoes’ soles and that they actually live longer there than on other surfaces. These bugs can cause stomach, eye and lung infections and 90% to 95% of the bacteria on our shoes transfers onto tiled floors – i.e. the entryway of your home, which you likely still walk on after taking your shoes off!

5. Bacteria can’t attach that quickly. It takes at least 6 seconds.

The whole principle of this urban legend is that bacteria can’t stick to food in less than five seconds – which, as you probably know by this point, is false. Research has shown that a dropped item can pick up germs within seconds, but it is true that the longer it sits there, the more contaminated it becomes.

One study found that if something is left for 30 seconds or longer, it can pick up ten times as many bacteria than if picked up after three seconds. So, your ninja-like reflexes are still only sort of helpful.

6. It doesn’t matter what type of flooring I drop my food on.

For bacteria to survive on any surface, it has to have the right conditions. And when it comes to dropping your food on the floor, the type of flooring will impact how many bacteria are available to transfer to your treat. It turns out that tiles and hardwood are more germ and bug-receptive, whereas carpet is not. When researchers slathered different surfaces with salmonella, they found that less than 1% of the bacteria they deposited transferred to the carpet, whereas 48%-70% happily latched onto tile or wood.

Where you decide to eat (and spill!) will now depend on which is more important: how much you enjoy cleaning food off your carpet vs. less germy food than if it was dropped on your kitchen tiles!

7. I forgot to clean up a really old mess on my floor, so all the bacteria are dead anyway.

Unfortunately not. One study found that Salmonella typhimurium can survive on surfaces for up to four weeks and even after this amount of time, sticks to foods tested almost immediately after contact. This type of bacteria causes upset tummies and diarrhea, but when found in mice, causes typhoid-like symptoms. Terrifying!

8. I can’t get that sick, can I?

There are many factors which at play when someone becomes ill: your own immune health, what the invading germs are, how virulent they are, and how many germy cells the food picks up when dropped. Any of those can play a direct role in how sick you can get.

If you happen to pick up a fairly nasty and strong bug, even your healthy immune system will likely still have a fight on its hands. See #10 for more info.

9. Everyone uses the 5 Second Rule.

A 2003 study found that 70% of women and 56% of men are familiar with the 5 second rule and use it. There are many different conclusions one could draw from this information, but since making gender stereotypes is never cool, we won’t get into that here. But it’s obvious that the adage, “Everyone else does it!” doesn’t really apply anymore.

10. A little bit of dirt is good for a person!

There is a recent movement promoting the concept that having everything hyper-sterilized is contributing to a higher prevalence of drug-resistant bacteria, and having a little dirt around is a good thing. Unfortunately, using this type of thinking when it comes to our food can be a bit dangerous.

The Centre for Disease Control estimates that 1 in 6 Americans become ill from foodborne illnesses a year. That’s 48 million people! An additional 128,000 are hospitalized and 3,000 actually die from these diseases.

11. I blew on my food after picking it up within 5 seconds. I am doubly safe!

Why humans believe that blowing on their food will remove any germs obtained from dropping it is anyone’s guess. But a group at Clemson University decided to test this theory anyway, and, to no one’s surprise, found that it did nothing. The group tested the bacteria levels on the candy Swedish Fish (let the drooling commence!) and found that the numbers of found on both the candy which had been blown on, and those that weren’t, were approximately the same. Another myth busted.

12. All foods are treated equally when saving from the floor

Most of us front that when it comes to rescuing food from the floor, we treat all types equally. This means that we’d reach for cauliflower just as quickly as we’d grab a fallen freshly baked chocolate chip cookie. Is that what you’d do? Honestly?

A small research study done in 2003 surveyed people to ask what types of food they’d risk saving from the floor and to no one’s surprise, respondents answered that they’d pick up candies and cookies more often than veggies like broccoli. Moisture plays a pivotal role in whether you should partake or not.

“Wait, what!?,” said no one.

13. Bacteria doesn’t care about what type of food you drop

If you happen to actually believe bacteria sticks to your food (hopefully you do after reading the previous 12 myths) you might want to know that they appear to be slightly discerning when it comes to what they adhere to.

Research done by Manchester Metropolitan University found that foods which were salty or sweet had less bacterial contamination than those which weren’t. It appears that salt and sugar (as well as nitrates found in processed meats), do not readily support microbe growth.

14. Cooking food left on the floor longer than 5 seconds gets rid of bacteria

Scientific information to support the notion that dropped food will still be safe if it’s cooked is more challenging to come by. Many online blogs and discussion forums claim that when bacteria is exposed to high temperatures they cannot survive, making it safe to eat food that’s been on the floor. Studies and more reliable sources to support this notion are harder to come by.

15. One of the greatest chefs of all time, Julia Child, created the 5 second rule!

Just like the 5 second rule itself, there are many urban legends around who created the idea food was safe if picked up quickly enough. Fans of Julia Child will state that she started the concept on her cooking show when she dropped a piece of meat on the floor and said it was fine as she was alone in the kitchen and her guests were none the wiser.

The truth is that she dropped a potato pancake on the stovetop and said (after putting it back in the pan), “But you can always pick it up and if you are alone in the kitchen, who is going to see?” Which hopefully, after reading this article, you will now beg to disagree…

Lauren Brown MSc. WWHP, is a certified Health & Wellness Coach who loves teaching about all facets of health and wellbeing. Much of her time is spent in workplaces, helping empower employees to get healthy through the wellness programming initiatives and educational sessions she delivers. Please see www.inspiringhealth.ca for more information.

Lauren Brown