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Calling Dr. Obvious?

Experts say studies with predictable results improve human condition

Experts say studies with predictable results improve human condition

July 30, 2007|By TIFFANY ARNOLD

It seems obvious to say eating food off the floor is wrong.

As is double-dipping.

Now, scientific studies back what most had taken as fact.

A study published in the Journal of Applied Microbiology earlier this year debunked the unwritten five-second rule, which states that it's OK to eat food off the floor as long as it's done in five seconds or less. The same researchers behind that study have just wrapped up another study that suggests double-dipping - biting off a piece of food and placing the bitten end into a container of dip - leads to more germs.

Another study, published last year in the journal Evolution and Human Behavior, concluded that mothers thought soiled diapers from other babies smelled worse than their own babies' dirty diapers.

So why do studies about things that seem so obvious, if not vapid?

Researchers from the studies mentioned say they are motivated by the same thing as other researchers - a desire to improve the human condition.

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And they say their research can lead to significant outcomes, such as stopping the spread of foodborne illness and understanding how mothers are able to override instinctive feelings of disgust when caring for their children.

Here is what they had to say about what prompted their research:

About the five-second rule ...

Clemson University researcher Paul Dawson painted a familiar scene:

"Say you're down to your last piece of chocolate, and you drop it on the floor," Dawson said. "You've got to ask yourself, how bad do you want that chocolate?"

Until recently, the five-second rule dictated that the dropper of the chocolate had five seconds to pick it up and eat it before it became too germ-ridden to enjoy.

Not anymore, according to Dawson.

He and a team of Clemson undergraduate researchers specializing in food safety decided to go after the five-second rule.

"Most people have heard some version of (the five-second rule), so we put it to the test," Dawson said.

The experiment examined how time affected the transfer of salmonella from tile, wood or carpet to white bread and baloney.

The results - published in the Journal of Applied Microbiology in March 2007 - suggested that time doesn't matter. If the surface is contaminated, "It will get on the food immediately, on contact," Dawson said.

The same could also be true for things dropped on dirty countertops, Dawson said.

'God made dirt, and dirt don't hurt'

While the odds for getting sick after eating food from the floor might be low, Dawson said it's not a risk worth taking, and he compared eating food off the floor with wearing seat belts.

"You can wear a seat belt every time you drive and never get in an accident. But why take the risk of not wearing one?" Dawson said.

The people The Herald-Mail interviewed for the story were willing to take the risk.

Kayse Jones, 16, of Hagerstown, was reluctant to admit that she ate food from the floor - until her friend Christina Abbate, 16, ratted her out.

Kayse then said that she'd eat food off her home floor but probably wouldn't do it elsewhere.

"If we were, like, at the mall, I wouldn't," Kayse said.

Christina also fessed up to eating floor food, and she said that, upon occasion, she has uttered the phrase "God made dirt, and dirt don't hurt" before picking the item up and eating it.

"It was probably a chip or something, nothing sticky," she said.

Five seconds, two seconds - it doesn't matter for nurses Brooke Thompson, 24, and Marissa Ringer, 21.

"It's just nasty," said Ringer, a Hagerstown resident, of eating food from the ground. "Just put it in the trash."

Still, both admitted to eating food from the floor.

"But not recently," Ringer said. "It makes me sick knowing that I did that."

Thompson, who lives in Martinsburg, W.Va., said a fallen grape was the culprit. "But I rinsed it off before I ate it," she said.

The verdict on double-dipping

Dawson and his team of researchers have moved on since the results of the five-second rule study were published.

"We're finishing up a study on double-dipping," Dawson said.

Dawson said his students got the idea from a "Seinfeld" episode, the one where George was busted for double-dipping a chip at a party.

According to the Clemson team's research, the agitated partygoer in the "Seinfeld" episode had reason to be upset.

"In most cases, it's not a big deal, but if you're at a Super Bowl party, you have to ask yourself, do you really want to kiss everybody there?"

Double-dipping adds 2,000 to 3,000 germs per milliliter. Dawson said that's not enough to evoke concern but that it added "more of an ick factor."

Dawson said he's preparing to send the results to another microbiology journal for review.

The baby diaper study

Two Australian researchers from Macquarie University in Australia and a researcher from the University of Washington in Seattle authored a study titled "My Baby Doesn't Smell as Bad as Yours: The Plasticity of Disgust," published in the journal Evolution and Human Behavior in September 2006.

The gist of the study: Mothers were asked to sniff samples of baby feces - with their own babies' droppings among the samples. The study found that moms regarded the smell of their own babies' feces less disgusting than that from someone else's baby.

The purpose? Generally disgust is a behavioral adaptation intended to keep us from harm's way, explained lead researcher Trevor Case, a professor in Macquarie's psychology department, via e-mail.

"Investigating mothers' reactions to changing nappies (the Aussie term for diapers) was just a good way to test how we are able to drop the disgust-disease avoidance guard in some situations," Case said.

Just don't expect a follow-up anytime soon.

"I haven't done any more studies like this - thankfully. I have my own baby now, so I get enough exposure to dirty diapers at home," Case said.

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