Search IconSearch
August 18, 2021/Diet, Food & Fitness

The 5-Second Rule and Fallen Food: Fact or Fiction?

The short answer from a registered dietitian

ice cream cone dropped on floor

Q: That treat that you’ve been craving just slipped through your fingers and hit the floor. Can you eat it without worry if you scoop it up within five seconds?

A: Maybe — but do you really want to risk it?


Cleveland Clinic is a non-profit academic medical center. Advertising on our site helps support our mission. We do not endorse non-Cleveland Clinic products or services. Policy

Food that lands on the floor will pick up some bacteria. That is a fact. But will that contamination be enough to give you gastric regret? That’s the question at the heart of the debate concerning the “5-second rule.”

To start, the concept behind the rule about eating dropped food is solid. The less time food spends on the floor, the fewer bacteria it picks up. Kind of common sense, right?

But the 5-second rule “is a significant oversimplification of what actually happens” regarding bacteria transfer from floor to food, according to a 2016 study published in an American Society for Microbiology journal.

Just consider all the variables. The type of food fumbled is significant, as is the surface the food hits. Time on the floor is only one part of the equation.

So let’s look at these factors.

On the food front, moistness matters — and it matters a lot. A juicy slice of watermelon basically serves as a bacteria sponge once it hits the ground. Expect it to potentially soak up nastiness such as E. coli and staph infection.

Drop a hard pretzel on the floor, however, and there’s far less reason to worry.

(An interesting side note: People are more willing to eat cookies and candy off the floor than veggies such as cauliflower or broccoli, according to a much-cited research project at the University of Illinois.)

When it comes to floor surfaces, carpet is the safest for a pick-it-up-and-eat move as the fibers hold less bacteria. Tile is riskier. Wood flooring? That’s tougher to nail down given all the different types and finishes.

Consider the location, too. Let’s just say eating something off of your living room carpet seems like a better bet than grazing off of a high-traffic gas station restroom.

Again, common sense.

So back to the 5-second rule and the main question: Should you eat that dropped doughnut or consider it a sacrifice to the god of clumsiness? Researchers come down on both sides of the debate.

Where everyone finds common ground, however, is on the seriousness of foodborne illnesses.

Consider this: An estimated 48 million Americans will get sick from a foodborne disease this year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Nearly 130,000 will be hospitalized. Roughly 3,000 will die.

That’s a stomach-churning reality — and definitely something to think about before nibbling off a floor buffet.

Dietitian Beth Czerwony, RD


Learn more about our editorial process.

Related Articles

Group of happy people sitting around table full of food, having a cookout
July 1, 2024/Nutrition
How Long Can Cookout Food Sit Out?

Once perishable food hits the table, it’s typically good for about two hours

Jar of raw glass sitting in grass
June 25, 2024/Nutrition
Drinking Raw Milk May Be Trendy, but No, It’s Not Safe

Drinking unpasteurized milk can cause issues like nausea, diarrhea, vomiting or, in some cases, serious illness

Person scooping up water in hands from creek
May 10, 2024/Nutrition
The Dangers of Drinking Spring Water and Raw Water

Drinking untreated water can have dangerous consequences, like bacterial infections

two kids eating snow outside
March 6, 2024/Nutrition
Is It Safe To Eat Snow?

If the flakes are undisturbed, pristine white and come from the top layer, it’s typically safe to indulge in a scoop

person walking away from toilet holding upset stomach
January 24, 2024/Digestive
Fried Rice Syndrome: Why It Happens and How To Avoid It

Keep cooked rice and pasta in your fridge — not on your counter — to help prevent this sneaky food poisoning

Raw hamburger patties separated by deli paper sitting on wooden cutting board.
May 24, 2023/Nutrition
Has My Ground Beef Gone Bad?

Color, texture, smell and expiration date all hold important clues

An avocado sliced in half with pit showing in one half, positioned on white marble with a sliced lemon in the background.
May 11, 2023/Nutrition
How to Safely Store Avocados (No Water Required!)

Warning: A popular TikTok hack to extend the life of avocados could lead to food poisoning

a death cap mushroom
March 24, 2023/Digestive
Poisonous Mushrooms: What To Know

Mushroom poisoning is real — and it can cause liver failure

Trending Topics

Female and friend jogging outside
How To Increase Your Metabolism for Weight Loss

Focus on your body’s metabolic set point by eating healthy foods, making exercise a part of your routine and reducing stress

stovetop with stainless steel cookware and glassware
5 Ways Forever Chemicals (PFAS) May Affect Your Health

PFAS chemicals may make life easier — but they aren’t always so easy on the human body

jar of rice water and brush, with rice scattered around table
Could Rice Water Be the Secret To Healthier Hair?

While there’s little risk in trying this hair care treatment, there isn’t much science to back up the claims