That Dropped Doughnut: How Soon, and How Often, Will It Come Back Up?

By Monica Hesse
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 8, 2007

Last month, scientists at Clemson University in South Carolina determined that applying the five-second rule to dropped food will not actually prevent the food from gathering bacteria.

The nation's reaction to this: Duh.

The five-second rule. If you've never heard of it, ask any sixth-grader. "It means that if you drop something on the ground, you can still eat it if you pick it up in five seconds," says Kiara Hopkins, 11.

"God made dirt and dirt don't hurt," elaborates Christopher Evans, 13. "But after five seconds, it's nasty."

Imperative to the rule's effectiveness, Kiara and Christopher say, is yelling out, "FIVE-SECOND RULE!" as soon as an item has touched the ground. It is also acceptable for a friend to yell it on your behalf.

It would seem that the Clemson research would be the death of the five-second rule. But such thinking would be based on the notion that the five-second rule is like any other rule, bound by the rule-like constraints of practicality and public good. It is not. The beauty of the five-second rule is that it is utterly pliable and that it is not about food so much as it is about yearning and disgust and gastronomic history and evolutionary wiring and the implicit social contract we make when we break (and drop) bread with other human beings.

Following the rule requires understanding its intricacies. "I would never eat a pickle," says Anaiah Grissom, 9, "not even after one second." She also would not eat a hot dog, a burger or a piece of broccoli, because those get dirty really fast. A Chips Ahoy, according to Anaiah, can last up to 15 seconds, and Pop-Tarts, like, never get dirty.

Indoor floors are better than outdoors, but grass is better than carpet.

The tastier the treat, the longer it can be left on the floor. Cake tastes better than cookies, though, and gets germy before cookies. You can almost never use the five-second rule on cake. Parents will, however, employ it on any foodstuff with a high per-pound price. You pick that up and eat it! You know how much that cost?

If you spend your last dollar on something, the germs will give you a break and leave it alone for an extra 10 seconds, or until you can pick it back up.

Okay, Anaiah, but here's an important question. Pretend your friends aren't around. Pretend your mom's not going to read this. Is the five-second rule true? Does it really take five seconds for germs to grow?

"Nah. It's just what you say."

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