As Bethany Gaskin, or Blove, breaks the hard shell of crab legs and extracts the ambrosial, succulent crab meat, the pleasing crack sound is satisfyingly heard by her fan-base of over a million followers. In front of a camera, Blove casually talks to her audience as she luxuriates in a fresh Cajun seafood boil.
In recent years, food-lovers have flocked to a new video genre taking over YouTube. It has launched personalities with thousands, even millions of followers. This is mukbang. Heard of it?
The word mukbang is a portmanteau of the Korean words “muk-ja” (eating) and “bang-song” (broadcast). In a mukbang video, the host, also called a BJ (Broadcast Jockey), consumes copious amounts of food while interacting with their audience. The trend originated from South Korea in around 2010, but since then has evolved into a worldwide craze. In fact, mukbang has become quite a well-paying industry, with South Korean mukbang host Banzz earning close to US$900,000 in 2017. American mukbang host Kim Thai earns at least $100,000 a year.
To what reasons does mukbang owe its popularity? The first cause is scientific.
A big component of mukbang’s popularity is the ASMR (autonomous sensory-motor response) its videos can elicit. In mukbang videos, one may notice the amplified audio of the host eating. To some, this may seem revolting, but to others, the crunching of fried chicken and the slurping of ramen soup elicits ASMR — a calming, pleasurable, and sometimes tingling sensation one feels when listening to certain types of sounds.
Similar to “food porn” or “eating shows,” mukbang viewers feel vicarious satisfaction. To increase the audience’ gratification, hosts deliberately eat loudly or place the food close to the camera. Through these visual and auditory stimuli, viewers feel that their food craving is fulfilled vicariously. The chewing, slurping, and swallowing noises are deliberately recorded to a high level of detail to incite pleasurable responses in viewers.
The second reason is a social one. While watching mukbang, viewers often simultaneously have their meals in front of their devices, picturing a companion sitting across them. Though this may seem peculiar, eating together is a mainstay in South Korean culture. Mealtimes are when families and friends catch up, serving as opportunities for people to socialize.
However, the world is becoming a lonelier place. A look at our modern era reveals more young people living independently away from extended family. Urbanization also creates densely populated cities and smaller living spaces, resulting in more people living alone than any other time in history. As we channel more time towards our hectic work schedules and the constant stream of content on our social media feeds, our emphasis on relationships wanes. Our real-life interactions with others become fragmented, limiting in quality and depth.
Mukbang is, in a way, an antidote to the isolation and loneliness that have clandestinely pervaded the lives of individuals living in a fast-paced and developed society like that of South Korea. In this day and age, watching mukbang is an alternative way to satisfy the craving for communal eating. Based on YouTube comments, people are watching mukbang videos while eating their meals; in other words, many young Koreans consider mukbang as their new dining partner. Some hosts are chatty, sharing anything from stories from their day to their opinions on current affairs while others prefer to concentrate on the food.
As mukbangs caught on, they seemed like an easy way to court fame and money, leading to a proliferation of mukbang channels. Today, one can easily find thousands of mukbangs hosted by people from Los Angeles to Tokyo to Rome to Bangkok. With a large variety of channels to choose from, the growing viewership began demanding spicier content. Suddenly, watching one stranger out of a thousand slurping down a relatively tame bowl of Korean army stew was no longer sufficiently satisfying. Watching someone take on gargantuan pork cutlets and packet after packet of 2x Samyang Hot Chicken Flavor Ramen, however, drew strong reactions and appeal from viewers. It is undeniable that sensationalism drives traffic, and hosts were certainly under pressure to film videos that satiate viewers’ voracious appetites and garner the attention of sponsors.
Some viewers are concerned about the health of mukbang hosts, and understandably so. Popular American mukbang host Nicholas Perry, states that mukbang takes an immense toll on his body. Perry cites frequent diarrhea, weight gain and even erectile dysfunction as side effects to his binge eating. Despite all that, Perry is unfazed, claiming that he eats plenty of greens outside of filming to compensate for his unhealthy diet.
Nutrition experts have raised concerns over the consequences of overeating and the development poor eating habits. It takes 21 days to form a habit, and partaking in mukbangs will certainly form negative eating habits because the large portions of unhealthy meals in mukbang equates to poorer nutrition and health. Short-term health risks include physical discomfort, gastrointestinal distress and lethargy while heart disease and diabetes might surface in the long run.
Despite the sensationalism underlying the trend, when hosted with moderation, mukbangs can be a positive source of influence. Georgie and Darren Spindler, a couple from the United Kingdom, are fitness and nutrition coaches. They film themselves sharing their usual vegan breakfast of vegan sausages, broccoli and rice. They do not gorge on gigantic servings of unhealthy food, instead opting to showcase balanced portions of healthy food.
In this increasingly isolated world, mukbang videos are here to stay. Humans require social interaction to sustain, and this innate desire is best embodied by the act of eating, where it is not solely about the sharing of cuisines, but also about bringing people from all around the world together. The competition for money and fame may have distorted the original purpose of mukbang, but the trend nonetheless illustrates how changing times bring about ways to deal with loneliness through entertainment.