Imagine you’re just about to relax on the couch on a Saturday afternoon. You have a plate full of potato chips…or a hot dog…or a pretzel… to snack on while you watch TV. But on your way to sit down, you trip over something on the floor. Your plate tilts and tosses a fine morsel of food right onto the floor.

What are you to do? You’re so hungry. If you pick it up quickly — within, for example, five seconds — shouldn’t it still be okay to eat? It can’t have become contaminated within such a short time, right? Or could it have?

Today’s Wonder of the Day takes a closer look at that unique superstition we all know as the five-second rule. It holds that food dropped onto the floor is still safe to eat as long as it’s retrieved and consumed within five seconds of being dropped. But is there any truth to it? Is dropped food really safe to eat as long as you do so quickly?

Some of you may be asking why we’re even talking about this at all. The thought of eating something that has hit the floor is simply unacceptable to many people. The very idea that a stray piece of hair or dirt has attached itself to the dropped food makes it off-limits to many. You can always get another potato chip, right? But others will grab that chip quickly and stuff it into their mouths, often with an accompanying shout of “Five-second rule!”

Since this “rule” is so widespread, we thought it was worth taking a look. We wanted to know if it had any actual scientific merit… or if it’s just a potentially dangerous superstition. And we’re in good company, since scientists have actually spent some time studying this phenomenon.

Based upon the available scientific research, it appears that the five-second rule is just a myth. Foods dropped onto the floor can quickly become contaminated with germs within a matter of seconds. The longer food remains on the floor, the more germs it’s likely to attract.

The type of surface food falls upon does matter. Clean, dry floors are less likely to have germs than are moist surfaces or carpet. Where the floor is located matters, too. A high-traffic area, such as a hallway, will likely have more germs and dirt than other areas.

Are a few germs a big deal, though? They definitely can be. Bacteria and viruses can cause all sorts of illnesses. Some of these bad germs, such as E. coli, salmonella, and hepatitis, can lead to life-threatening sickness. Even those food-borne illnesses that aren’t life-threatening are still not fun to get.

So, if your food hits the floor, why not play it safe? Just pick it up and put it in the trash. This may be easier to do if the food is broccoli as opposed to chocolate, but your health is important. Don’t take a chance. Pitch it and get some more food. No potato chip is worth the risk of a food-borne illness!

Standards: NGSS.LS1.A, CCRA.L.3, CCRA.L.6, CCRA.R.1, CCRA.R.2, CCRA.R.4, CCRA.R.10, CCRA.SL.1

Wonder What's Next?

Tomorrow’s Wonder of the Day takes a closer look at some really needy creatures!