Are You Really Safe From Germs?

Alexandra Silveira
23 January 2012

The five-second rule makes it ok to eat food that’s fallen to the ground if you pick up the food within five seconds. As far as rules go, it’s pretty flexible. For example, the time can be extended to ten seconds for a piece of chocolate. But if broccoli falls, then hardly anyone bothers eat it. Why? Well, aside from broccoli’s taste, there is the danger that it could get covered in germs!

Did You Know?
Genghis Khan, the famous 13th century Mongolian leader, supposedly originated the five-second rule except back then it was the twenty-hour rule. So, what are germs? Basically, a germ is a microorganism, or an organism that is too small to be seen without the help of a microscope. There are several different types of microorganisms including bacteria, fungi, and archae or protists.

These microorganisms can be found everywhere! They live in water, in the soil, deep within the earth’s crust, and even on and within humans. Even as you read this article, there are microorganisms that are helping you digest food.

Did You Know?
Microorganisms, specifically bacteria, are also responsible for the nasty smells associated with sweat and gym socks. In addition to digestion, microorganisms are helpful in lots of ways. As part of the ecosystem they can break down waste and return nutrients to the soil. We also use microorganisms like bacteria and yeast to make foods like bread, cheese, and yogurt.

However, not all microorganisms are food friendly. WebMD expert, Ruth Frechman, M.A., R.D., the spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association warns that “10 types (of bacteria), including E. coli, cause foodborne illnesses, such as fever, diarrhea, and flu-like symptoms.”

Did You Know?
Microorganisms that can make us sick are classified as pathogenic, or disease causing. But does food that’s dropped to the ground really get covered with germs? High school senior Jillian Clarke set out to examine the five-minute rule during an internship at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Jillian dropped foods like gummy bears and cookies on the ground to see whether or not they became contaminated with bacteria.

Did You Know?
In a separate study in 2001, Katriel Ramu and Jean Barker surveyed 210 people at the University of Maine to find that 1% of people would eat food that hit the bathroom floor. That’s right, 1% not the expected 0%. In her experiment, Jillian found that food dropped on clean floors remained relatively free of germs. However, food dropped on E. coli contaminated floors showed that bacteria spread to the food in less than five seconds.

Did You Know?
E. coli is short for a type of bacteria more formally called Esherichia coli that is commonly found in the human digestive system. There are many different strains of E. coli, some neutral and others pathogenic. Jillian also found that food dropped on smooth tile was more easily contaminated than that dropped on rough tile. Well, what about carpet? Or wet floors? While Jillian didn’t test those, it’s commonly known that surfaces that are wet or containing moisture are favorable environments for microorganisms.

Since germs reside everywhere and are invisible to the naked eye, it’s hard to tell whether a floor is truly clean. Sure, we can make educated guesses, but what if we’re wrong? Should we accept the five-second rule or sadly, throw it away like a fallen piece of broccoli?

We all know what Genghis Khan would do…then again, most modern experts advise that whether gummy worm or broccoli, fallen food is most safely left uneaten.

Learn More!

CBC News on Ecoli

Wikipedia on microorganisms

Wikipedia on the 5 second rule

CBS news on the 5 second rule

SafeFood Rapid Response Network on the 5 second rule

Snopes.com on Urban Legends: the 5 second rule

Aces News Article: If You Drop It, Should You Eat It? Scientists Weigh In on the 5-Second Rule

Ask Yahoo: Is there any truth to the "five second rule" about food that falls on the floor?

UMF Mainestream: Does the 5 second rule exist?

Scienceline: Does the 5 second rule really work?

Alexandra Silveira is a graduate student at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. She loves winter breaks, snow, and hot chocolate…with marshmallows.

Alexandra Silveira

I just received my PhD from the pathology department at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. I currently live in Providence, Rhode Island and co-manage the Entertainment section of CurioCity. In my spare time I read about science, watch horrible comedies, and am an aspiring Rock Band rock star.


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