The 5-Second Rule Is Real (With Some Big Caveats), Claims Scientist

By James O Malley on at

The 5-Second Rule, the folk-wisdom that says its okay to eat dropped food as long as you pick it up within 5 seconds, is real, according to a press release from Aston University.

The Standard reports, alongside many other outlets, that "germ expert" Professor Anthony Hilton (actually a Professor of Microbiology) is claiming that "although retrieving these morsels can never be completely without risk, there is little to be concerned about if the food is only there momentarily."

Apparently Prof Hilton "monitored the transfer of the common bacteria Escherichia coli (E. coli) and Staphylococcus aureus from a variety of indoor floor types (carpet, laminate and tiled surfaces) to toast, pasta, biscuit and a sticky sweet when contact was made from 3 to 30 seconds."

The results are said to show two completely obvious things: That time is a "significant factor" in the transfer of bacteria to the food, and that the type of flooring matters: With carpeted surfaces least likely to transfer bacteria, and laminate and tiled surfaces likely to transfer more. (We're guessing it's because your toast will have more consistent contact with a laminate floor, whereas a carpet is essentially holding the toast up in the air a tiny bit.)

So... great news, right? It's certainly a slam dunk for Aston University's PR department. But at the risk of being a little bit too sceptical - this doesn't really appear to yet be a proper science, at least, yet. As the original press release notes, the research has not yet been peer reviewed. So treat the conclusion with caution.

And amusingly, Prof Hilton appears to caveat his research so much that it somewhat undercuts the conclusions, with the press release quoting him as saying that "Consuming food dropped on the floor still carries an infection risk as it very much depends on which bacteria are present on the floor at the time."

No shit.

Perhaps the biggest tell that that this is designed more as a promotional wheeze than anything serious though is that to go along with the "science", the University says that it conducted a poll (with no methodology specified), which draws the sufficiently clickbaity conclusions that 87% of "people" (who? random people? Or were the samples weighted?) would or have eaten dropped food, and that 55% of the people who have eaten dropped food are women. Remember when Albert Einstein promoted his theory of General Relativity by asking people what they'd do with the extra time saved by gravitational time dilation?

We're looking forward to reading about this ground-breaking 5-second rule research in Nature already. [Standard]