Debunking the 5 Second Rule and Other Health Myths

By Michele C. Hollow  @michelechollow
November 07, 2016

Common “facts” that most of us are aware of are just not true.

You’re enjoying that freshly baked cookie. You take a bite and the rest falls onto the floor. You yell, “5 second rule,” scoop it up, and put it in your mouth. 

Sorry to tell you: it’s not true. “The popular notion of the ‘5 second rule’ is that food dropped on the floor, but picked up quickly, is safe to eat because bacteria need time to transfer,” Donald Schaffner, professor and extension specialist in food science at Rutgers University, said. “This pop culture ‘rule’ has been featured by at least two TV programs. Research on this is limited.”


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Rutgers’ School of Environmental and Biological Sciences decided to look into the claim because the practice is so widespread. They tested four different types of food on four different surfaces — stainless steel, ceramic tile, wood, and carpet. The foods they tested were watermelon, bread, buttered bread, and gummy candy. They dropped these foods on each of the surfaces for less than a second, five, 30, and 300 seconds. Each drop was done 20 times. Watermelon had the most contamination and gummy candy had the least. 

What was found was the higher the moisture content of the food, the higher the risk of bacteria from the surfaces. Researchers also found that the longer contact times resulted in more bacteria on the foods. Regarding the surfaces used, food that fell onto the carpet had low amounts of bacteria. 

So, next time food falls on the floor, put it in the trash. 

Other health rules include: 

If you don’t wear a hat in the winter, you’ll lose 80 percent of your body heat. This myth stems from military experiments conducted 50 years ago. In those studies, subjects were dressed in Arctic survival suits and exposed to the extreme cold. These suits only covered them from the necks down. So, in these frigid conditions, body heat did escape from the head. Under normal circumstances, we lose only between 7 and 10 percent of our body heat by not wearing a hat. 

Gray wintry skies make us depressed. “Major depression is no more rampant during the winter months than at any other time of the year,” John Sharp, MD, professor at Harvard University, and author of “The Emotional Calendar,” said. “Busy schedules and worries about holiday spending are more likely to trigger the blues than true seasonal affective disorder, which affect five percent of people in the U.S.”

Vaccines cause autism. This one has been known to cause heated arguments. The myth started in 1998 after an article was published in the journal The Lancet. The study being reviewed showed parents of eight autistic children stating their children contracted autism after receiving measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine. That article has since been retracted, and numerous following studies in scientific journals found there is no link between vaccines and autism.

We use only 10 percent of our brains. In the movie “Defending Your Life,” actor Rip Torn says, “"When you use more than five percent of your brain, you don't want to be on Earth, believe me.” It’s funny, but not true. This myth was started in the early 1900s by motivational speakers and self-help gurus. “They did this as a way to get people to tap into some latent capacity,” said Rachel Vreeman, MD, co-author of “Don’t Swallow Your Gum! Myths, Half-Truths, and Outright Lies about Your Body and Health.” 

Vreeman said that “by looking at any brain scan, we can see how big a myth this is because we think we haven’t reached our full potential.”

Swallowing gum is unhealthy. This and the myth that, if you do swallow gum, it will stay in your stomach for seven years stems from gum being made with resin and wax, which are indigestible. That doesn’t mean the wad of gum you or your child swallowed several years ago is still in your stomach! Thankfully, our digestive system is a marvelous one; anything it can’t absorb, it moves along and out of our system. “It passes right through your digestive tract and into the toilet,” Vreeman said.

Wait at least one hour after eating before you go for a swim. How many of you sat and waited in the hot sun for a full 60 minutes after eating a meal at the beach? It’s actually better to cool off in the water than bake in the hot sun. However, don’t overdo it. Vigorous exercise on a full stomach can cause cramps and nausea. So, take it slow after eating a meal.


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April 08, 2020

Reviewed By:  

Janet O’Dell, RN