The Enid News and Eagle, Enid, OK


July 27, 2013

Time is running out on five-second rule

ENID, Okla. — Americans are not well.

That was the conclusion reached in a major report released earlier this year by the U.S. National Research Council and the Institute of Medicine.

It seems we spend more as a country on health care — nearly twice as much as other nations, in fact — but we die younger and experience more injury and illness than people in other developed countries.

There are many reasons Americans as a whole are so unhealthy, among them too much smoking, drinking and eating, too little exercise, too many cars and too many guns, according to the report. In addition, too many of us don’t have health insurance, and too many live in poverty.

To that my bride would likely add the five-second rule, the dropping food on the floor one, not the basketball one.

Everybody knows the five-second rule, which states that if you drop a food item on the floor and pick it up and pop it in your mouth before five seconds elapses, you won’t be ingesting all sorts of disease-causing oogly mooglies.

Some sources claim the five-second rule traces back to the time of Genghis Khan, though back then it was reportedly known simply as the Khan Rule.

It seems when Temujin, as he was born, was leading the Mongol hordes in their conquest of much of Eurasia around the turn of the 13th century, he and the troops would pause for large celebratory banquets after each victory.

Old Khan was apparently a generous host, with plenty of food and drink for all, and with only one rule. Any food that fell on the floor could stay there for 12 hours, or as long as the Great Khan said it could stay there. “Trust me — it will still be safe to eat,” he reportedly told them.

Given that floors weren’t particularly clean in the 13th century, much less those in a yurt somewhere on the high plains of Mongolia, the Great Khan likely lost a number of men to disease in the wake of his dinner parties.

In 2003, a high school student interning at the University of Illinois conducted a scientific study of the validity of the five-second rule. Jillian Clarke surveyed 100 college students (50 male, 50 female), and found that 70 percent of the women and 56 percent of the men had used the five-second rule, largely to save cookies and candy from being discarded, rather than cauliflower and broccoli.

Clarke placed E. coli bacteria on both rough and smooth floor tiles, then dropped Gummy Bears and fudge striped cookies on the tiles, left them for five seconds, picked them up and examined them under a high-powered microscope. She found E coli on all the cookies and candy.

More recently, researchers at Clemson University, led by food science professor Paul Dawson, conducted a similar study, this time using salmonella bacteria. The result was the same.

Last year, scientists at Manchester Metropolitan University in Great Britain learned that foods with a higher salt or sugar content had a lower chance of retaining harmful bacteria after being dropped onto the floor than healthier foods with a higher water content, like fruit or veggies. This proves it is better to eat chips or candy than a slice of apple or a hunk of broccoli, at least if you are prone to fumble fingers.

Every time I drop something on the floor and then subsequently pop it into my mouth, invoking the five-second rule in the process, my bride makes a face, says something on the order of “yuck,” and upbraids me for my lack of gastronomic decorum.

I simply smile and enjoy my liberated libation, much to her continued discomfiture.

Just recently I got to thinking about E. coli, salmonella and their more common cousin, campylobacter, and the nasty symptoms they can cause — like abdominal cramping, vomiting and diarrhea, or bigger issues like pneumonia, kidney failure, a compromised immune system, and even death, and decided that perhaps the five-second rule isn’t such a good idea after all.

“Eating off the floor is kind of like not wearing a seat belt. Someone can go their whole life without wearing a seat belt and be fine ... until the day they get into an accident,” said Dawson.

I always wear my seat belt, but if the last bit of cake falls to the floor, I probably will still pick it up. I can’t help myself.

If you drink tainted water and become ill, the condition is commonly known as Montezuma’s Revenge. So what do they call it if you become ill as the result of snarfing a treat off of the floor under the five-second rule, the Wrath of Khan?

Mullin is senior writer of the News & Eagle. Email him at

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