By now, most of us know that it’s polite to cover our mouths while sneezing and coughing, and that we probably shouldn’t talk with full mouths. After all, no one wants to be in contact with other people’s germs. But what about when it comes to the age-old tradition of blowing out candles on birthday cakes?
It’s funny — no one knows exactly where this candle tradition started (some claim that people blew out candles to send the smoke — and therefore wishes — up to the gods), but we do know that it’s now pretty commonplace. And as it turns out, it’s also pretty gross. At least that’s the verdict from a recent study done at the Clemson University in South Carolina.
Researchers wanted to know how much bacteria actually spreads from a person’s mouth to the frosting of a cake when blowing out candles, so they had participants down a slice of pizza (to stimulate a realistic party experience), and then blow out 17 candles on top of a sheet of icing that sat on a fake Styrofoam cake.
The icing was then diluted with lab tools and transferred to plates so researchers could do bacterial counts. And as it turns out, icing surrounding blown-out candles contained up to 1,400 per cent more bacteria than the regular icing.
Let’s think about that for a second: 1,400 per cent more. Yuck.
There’s more though: not only did the bacteria-infested icing have more germs on it in general, but those germs also spread out to a wider area. So even if you tried to nibble on a piece of cake further away from the candle that was blown out, you’d probably still get some germs in your mouth.
But it isn’t all bad news. The researchers found that the number of bacteria spread actually depended on the person blowing out the candles (perhaps some people just had more saliva than others). But for the most part, the bacteria that spread wasn’t harmful. In fact, there’s probably nothing to worry about unless the person in question’s sick. (In that case, you may want to politely pass on the cake and eat a cookie instead.)
Maybe it’s best to just not think about it and to keep on eating cake the way we have for decades. On the other hand, you could go the cupcake route and let the birthday boy or girl keep their germ-laden cupcake all to themselves. Or, you know, you could just ditch the candles.