Taking a bite out of the 5-second rule

Taking a bite out of the 5-second rule

When my friends and I were growing up, many of our grandmothers still clung to certain old wives tales that seemed ridiculous to us even then, i.e., standing behind a baby’s head while it was lying down would cause it to grow up to be cross-eyed (I guess from having to look up backwards at you), while one girl’s nana insisted that if you wore your boots in the house you would “go blind (though no one could explain why).

However, the most persistent, and generally accepted, belief, even today, was in the validity of the 5-second rule. In other words, it was safe to eat any food or candy that dropped on the ground as long as you picked it up in less than 5-seconds. The idea was that the time would hardly be enough for bacteria to latch onto it.

Although I don’t know anyone who got sick from eating errant tidbits (provided they were able to grab them before the dog/cat did), a recent study out of Rutgers University led by Donald Schaffner, debunked the 5-second rule as nothing more than a “significant oversimplification of what really happens when bacteria transfers from various surfaces to food.”

In fact, after dropping food stuffs of varying textures, including bread, watermelon and gummy bears onto floors covered by wood, carpet and tile that had been tainted with salmonella type bacteria, and leaving them there for varying lengths of time, Schaffner and his team noted that they became contaminated by germs instantaneously.

Meanwhile, it should be noted that a similar study was conducted in 2004, by (then) high school student Jillian Clarke during a 6-week internship at the University off Illinois, Urbana food and nutrition center. According to Meredith Agle, then a doctoral candidate, who supervised the study, “Jillian swabbed the floors around the University in the lab, hall, dormitory, and cafeteria to see how many organisms we could isolate.”

Agle later told WebMD. That after examining the swabs, they found “very few microorganisms,” and repeated the process to be sure, coming up with the same results several times. The reason, Agle believes is that the floors were relatively dry and that the majority of pathogens such as e.coli, salmonella and listeria, etc., need dampness to propagate. In the end, Clarke was presented with an Ig Nobel prize in 2004 at Harvard University. Ig Nobel prizes are awards for “research that first makes you laugh, then makes you think.”

Other examples of studies presented with the Ig prize that same year went to the inventor of Karaoke; Steven Stack of Wayne State University, Detroit, Michigan, USA and James Gundlach of Auburn University, Auburn, Alabama, USA, for their published report “The Effect of Country Music on Suicide; and Ramesh Balasubramaniam of the University of Ottawa, and Michael Turvey of the University of Connecticut and Haskins Laboratory, for exploring and explaining the dynamics of hula-hooping, just to name a few.

Interestingly, a survey taken by Jillian Clarke at the time found that while 70% of women and 56% of men polled stated that they were well aware of the 5-second rule, it was practiced by the women more often than their male counterparts, particularly when the items dropped were things like cake, candy or other delectable items as opposed to spilled vegetables and other less palatable items.

About Diana Duel

Diana Duel is an eclectic writer who has written on everything from woodstove and fireplace cooking to automotive topics and holistic medicine. As an advocate of health and wellbeing, Diana also writes several columns related to these subject.

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