Is It True: That It’s Safe To Eat Dropped Food If You Pick It Within 5 Seconds?

Posted on November 27, 2016 in Health and Life, Is It True

By Rajkanya Mahapatra

I love food. Whenever I have been asked if I were a vegetarian or a non-vegetarian, I would somewhat proudly say or rather, declare that I was an omnivore. I love food and refuse to pick a side or a favourite. Most people have life goals, love goals, most of my goals are food goals.

Having said that, I am also a cleanliness freak and the thought of germs on my food scare me. If a morsel that I was preparing to relish falls on the ground, my heart will break into a gazillion pieces but I will throw it away. I have friends who would often give me that ‘look’, the one that says, ‘You’re not one of us anymore.’ They would on these occasions, say, ‘Arre, 5-second rule hai, uthao aur khaao.’

The 5-second rule says that it is okay to eat food that you’ve dropped on a kitchen counter, table or the floor provided you pick it up within five seconds after dropping it.

Now the question that has forever intrigued me but I have never directed my energies at finding the answers to know if the 5-second rule is for real. Do bacteria count five seconds after food falls on the floor and then jump on food to contaminate it? Does that make bacteria more considerate than human beings, more compassionate? Or is the food really safe to eat? I think not.

Illustration credit: Shambhavi Saxena

The Rule Isn’t Real Or Is It?

Before we delve deeper into the science, looking at its history should be able to somewhat explain the rationale that was given to explain the 5-second rule. It is difficult to trace the origins and the authenticity of the assumption but the rule was said to have been implemented by Genghis Khan, who said that food could be on the floor for five hours and one could still eat it. (Yeah, right.)

So now, coming to the science of it – It all depends on the kind of food you’re gorging on and the surface that you’re most likely to drop it on. Studies show that if you’re having something that’s moist, like a slice of double cheese burst pizza or has more liquid content, like a slice of watermelon, it is more likely to get infected by bacteria than a piece of double chocolate chip cookie because it’s dry.

But make no mistake, the double chocolate chip cookie will get infected depending on the time it is exposed to bacteria. It might take a few seconds longer, but it’ll happen.

Bacteria like salmonella, listeria or E.coli don’t have feet or a cape, they can’t walk or fly to the food, they need moisture to travel. If the food is dry, but the surface of the floor isn’t, they’ll hop on.

But there are different surfaces on which food can fall on, right? Does that change anything? Yes. A little.

Think of linoleum, carpeted floors or tiled surfaces. Results of an experiment conducted by final year Biology students and led by Anthony Hilton, Professor of Microbiology at the Aston University showed that bacteria was least likely to transfer in that 5-second frame if food fell on carpeted floors than on tiled or laminated surfaces.

It also obviously comes down to the kind of bacteria present on a certain surface. If that carpet is really dirty, you’re going to get bacteria on that piece of food before you have even moved to pick it up. It will always be more advisable if you’re picking food (not that I am, in any way, encouraging it) from a surface you know is cleaned on a regular basis, like the kitchen counter or dining table at your house.

Most studies scream, ‘Don’t eat it!’ Researchers have published highly credible papers, received the Ig Nobel Prize and what not.

Sorry, folks. Looks like using the 5-second rule as an excuse to eat that contaminated piece of dahi kebab is a bad idea and can get your stomach upset, you could also contract severe illnesses.

You need to know four words: “Bacteria can contaminate instantaneously.”

The following video is a one-stop at debunking the 5-second rule.


Image source: Joe Raedle/Getty Images