The all-important 5 second rule!

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I’m sure you know this scenario. You have eaten your dinner and have saved space for that delicious cupcake that you have dreamt of all day. You have eaten all the salad your mum insisted on before you got your treat. You have fought off the grubby hands of your little sister, who tried to sneak up and grab it. And then, just as you pick it up, your fingers betray you and splat! It falls to the floor! This is where the 5-second rule comes into play. 

What’s the 5-second rule? 

An unwritten rule that states that you can eat anything that has fallen to the floor if you pick it up within five seconds. 

Who said that? 

You won’t believe who! The Mongol ruler Genghis Khan was perhaps the first to implement it. In their book, Did You Just Eat That? food scientist Paul Dawson and food microbiologist Brian Sheldon say that the ‘Khan-rule’ was used at the king’s banquets. 

They say, “If food fell on the floor, it could stay there as long as Khan allowed,” because “food prepared for Khan was so special that it would be good for anyone to eat no matter what.” 

In reality, though, they believe that science had yet to discover and understand how microorganisms and bacteria work. So the upset stomachs of the common folk probably had a lot to do with poor hygiene and less to do with the clairvoyance of the mighty Khan!

So then it’s true? 

There is much debate, discussion and research on the subject. 

You mean scientists have actually studied it??

Yup! And more than one! 

Robyn Miranda, PhD student in food science at Rutgers University, published a study in Applied and Environmental Microbiology that researched this dilemma. She used four different types of foods – watermelon, bread, bread and butter, and gummy candy and then dropped each one, for precisely five seconds of different kitchen floor surfaces such as stainless steel, tile, wood, and carpet. She also dropped the foods for 30 seconds and five minutes to gauge how important the time duration was. The results were that though the longer the food was on the floor, the more germs it picked up, sometimes there was an immediate transfer. What was also interesting was that watermelon’s high moisture content made it the most germ-prone and that carpet had the lowest transfer rate, probably because it has crevices which the germs and bacteria may be hidden in rather than on the surface. 

Other experts feel that bacteria are everywhere and that the really dangerous ones like E. coli can cause terrible diarrhoea and fever so it is just not worth taking a chance. Most advise to at the very least wash the food if possible. 

So that’s it then? I have to chuck my beloved last slice of pizza that hit the floor, into the bin!

While there is no absolute consensus on the topic, I suppose it’s better to be safe than sorry. Or perhaps follow a new rule. If a cookie [insert any other favourite food] falls, dust it off, but broccoli can go in the bin! 


Written by: Pereena Lamba. Pereena is a freelance writer, editor and creative consultant. She is also co-author of Totally Mumbai.

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