A child sitting on the floor with crackers that have been scattered on the ground. Share on Pinterest

When you drop food on the floor, do you toss it or eat it? If you’re like a lot of people, you likely take a quick look, assess the risks, and perhaps decide against eating something that landed where the dog sleeps.

While discarding your favorite cookie or piece of fruit is probably the safe way to go, are there situations when the 5-second rule applies?

Here’s a look at what we discovered about the 5-second rule, and whether it’s ever safe to eat something that’s been on the floor for less than a few seconds.

Whether you work in a kitchen, have kids, or just have a habit of dropping food on the floor, there’s a good chance you already know what it means when someone mentions the “5-second rule.”

In layman’s terms, adhering to this rule gives us permission to eat something that fell on the floor, as long as it’s picked up within 5 seconds.

In scientific terms, the 5-second rule proposes that if you quickly grab the dropped food from a contaminated surface, the microorganisms on that surface won’t have time to transfer on to your food.

In other words, if you drop your morning muffin on the kitchen floor but pick it up super fast, the microorganisms on your floor won’t have a chance to hitch a ride on your blueberry muffin.

But does it really work that way?

Before you decide for yourself, consider the fact that any food item that comes into contact with a surface will pick up some type of bacteria. Plus, there’s no way of knowing what type of bacteria, or how much, is waiting to invade your dropped muffin.

What’s more, unlike your hands, you can’t sanitize the food you’ve dropped.

Summary

According to the “5-second rule,” it’s safe to eat food that’s fallen on the ground, as long as you pick it up within 5 seconds.

But is there any truth to this “rule,” or is it best to ignore this advice?

At this point, you might be wondering whether the 5-second rule is a myth. The short answer is yes. Mostly.

The confusion lies in the fact that some environments and surfaces are safer than others. Not to mention, there are also some foods that may be safer to eat after being dropped.

There are, as can be expected, varying opinions on the safety of eating food off the floor.

While very few studies exist on this topic, one group of researchers did test the 5-second rule. What they discovered may surprise you.

Rutgers researchers found that moisture, the type of surface, and contact time on the ground all contribute to the degree of cross-contamination.

This, in turn, can affect how likely you are to be infected by a foodborne illness.

According to the study, certain types of foods fare better than others when dropped on the floor. And the type of surface matters, too. Here are some key findings of the study:

  • The moisture of a food item has a direct correlation with contamination. For example, the study tested watermelon, which has high levels of moisture. Researchers found it had more contamination than any other food item that was tested.
  • When it comes to the surface, researchers discovered that carpet has a very low transfer rate. Tile, stainless steel, and wood have much higher transfer rates.
  • In some instances, the transfer of bacteria can begin in less than 1 second.

Summary

Research suggests that dropped food that’s moist and sticky will likely have more bacteria attach to it than dry food.

Also, food dropped on carpet will likely have less contamination than food that lands on a wooden or tiled floor.

If you choose to roll the dice with the 5-second rule, you may be OK in certain situations, especially if you’re a healthy adult.

However, there are some people who have a higher risk for developing complications from eating food off the floor. This includes:

  • young children
  • older adults
  • pregnant women
  • people with compromised immune systems

People in these higher-risk groups should always toss dropped food in the trash instead of eating it.

According to the latest stats from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), foodborne diseases cause approximately 76 million illnesses, 325,000 hospitalizations, and 5,000 deaths in the United States each year.

The CDC also points out that at-risk populations are much more likely to develop a foodborne illness.

The bacteria and viruses that most often cause foodborne illnesses include:

  • norovirus
  • Salmonella
  • Clostridium perfringens (C. perfringens)
  • Campylobacter
  • Staphylococcus aureus (staph)

The most common symptoms of food poisoning include:

  • abdominal pain and cramps
  • diarrhea
  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • fever
  • chills
  • headache

While most of these symptoms will likely resolve on their own, there are times when a foodborne illness can be life threatening.

Be sure to get medical attention if your symptoms are severe, or if your symptoms don’t get better after 3 to 4 days.

Whether you habitually eat food that’s fallen on the floor or insist on tossing it, one thing’s for sure: There are bacteria all over the place. We just don’t know how much bacteria, or what types.

The type of food and the surface your food lands on can also make a difference. A piece of wet, sticky food that falls on a tiled floor is likely to pick up a lot more bacteria than a pretzel that lands on a rug.

If you’re ever in doubt about what to do, most experts agree that the safest thing is to err on the side of caution. In other words, if you’re not sure whether it’s safe to eat something that’s fallen on the floor, just throw it out.