Myth or Reality: The 10-Second Rule of Dropped Food

The 10-second rule states that food dropped on the ground is safe to eat if picked up within 10 seconds. Read on to find out if the rule is a myth or reality.

Mudit Chhikara
Dec 7, 2022, 15:44 IST
Myth or Reality: The 10-Second Rule of Dropped Food
Myth or Reality: The 10-Second Rule of Dropped Food

Myth or Reality: The 10-second rule of dropped food is a common notion that’s especially prevalent among school kids and food lovers. The 10-second rule states that any food dropped on the ground or any other surface is safe to eat as long as it’s picked up within 10 seconds. While the 10-second rule is a touchy subject in the scientific community, there have been several studies on it that reveal the truth. Keep reading to find out if the 10-second rule is a myth or reality.

What is the 10-second rule?

The 10-second rule is an extension of the 3- and 5-second rules. These are common beliefs among foodies and students based on the subject of food contamination. The 10-second rule says that if a food object is dropped on the ground or any other surface, it is safe to consume if picked up within the stipulated time, be it three, five, or 10 seconds.

How did the 10-second rule originate?

No one knows how superstitious beliefs originate. However, historians have traced the origins of the 10-second rule to the Mongol Emperor Genghis Khan, who reportedly declared that any food prepared for him was fit to eat, even from the ground. The belief likely carried on to other regions.

Then there’s the topic of food. Kingdoms have crumbled, thrived, and even gone to war due to food. It was a precious commodity in old times, unlike today when nearly half the world is overweight, and 1 in 10 people are malnourished. Scientists believe the idea of conserving food, especially during troubled times, may have also given rise to the 10-second rule.

Why is the 10-second rule so popular?

There are several reasons behind the widespread prevalence of the 10-second rule. But the most rational one is the growing deliciousness of foods.

Ask yourself: Would you pick up a vegetable like broccoli if it were to fall to the ground? Unless you really like to eat green veggies, the answer is likely a huge No!

Nobody likes to eat food off the ground, but sometimes there isn’t any other choice. A child, bustling with energy, opens a pack of potato chips and spills half on the floor. The natural instinct is to pick them up as quickly as possible. After all, chips aren’t free, and they taste good. You likely wouldn’t hesitate to eat your favourite dessert if it fell to the floor either.

Is the 10-second rule a myth or reality?

There have been numerous studies on the 10- and 5-second rules. It has even appeared in an episode of the popular Discovery series Mythbusters. Although the results were inconclusive.

However, the 10-second rule is a myth as per science. There is no scientific basis for the theory that food is safe to eat off the ground if consumed within a few seconds.

Surfaces are brimming with all sorts of contaminants and disease-causing agents like dirt, faecal matter, chemicals, microorganisms and viruses. While dirt can be washed off, microorganisms aren’t so easy to get rid of, especially from inhabitable things like food.

A group of researchers at Rutgers University concluded that the moisture level of food and the surface led to higher microorganism accumulation than dry foods and surfaces like a cookie on a carpet. Tile, steel, and wood all have a higher microorganism transfer rate than carpet. Also, the bacteria don’t wait 10 seconds to accumulate on food items. The process is immediate.

You have to understand that microorganisms aren’t like cockroaches or ants that you can see attacking your food. They are microscopic, and even an area as small as a pin tip can contain millions of harmful bacteria. And just a few of them are enough to make you sick.

It doesn’t matter if you pick food up in 10 seconds, five seconds, or immediately; it is contaminated the moment it touches any surface.

Should you eat food off the ground?

Around 12 per cent of foodborne illnesses are caused by surface contamination. Not all microorganisms are disease-causing, and the effectiveness of the 10-second rule also depends on the type of food, environmental factors, and the type of surface. But eating food off the floor is a game of chance. You may or may not get sick.

You may have gotten away with implementing the 10-second rule due to a strong immune system or external factors. But you never know when you’ll find a microorganism or virus that is too strong for the immune system.

So it’s better to be on the safe side and avoid the 10-second rule altogether.


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