Unpacking the explosive rise of mukbang

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Unpacking the explosive rise of mukbang

YouTube star Erik the Electric in one of his many mukbang videos featuring popular American fast food items.

YouTube star Erik the Electric in one of his many mukbang videos featuring popular American fast food items.

Courtesy of Eric the Electric / Youtube

YouTube star Erik the Electric in one of his many mukbang videos featuring popular American fast food items.

Courtesy of Eric the Electric / Youtube

Courtesy of Eric the Electric / Youtube

YouTube star Erik the Electric in one of his many mukbang videos featuring popular American fast food items.

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In a 43-minute-long video with almost 400,000  views on YouTube, Stephanie Soo sits atop her kitchen stool and devours over 100 spicy dumplings with sprinkles of impassioned commentary—“So hot, so steamy so juicy!”—and straight-to-camera gossip about friends’ douchebag boyfriends of days past. By the end of the video, she has demolished the dumplings and ranted about everything under the sun: a successful mukbang, no doubt.

Soo, who has garnered over 800,000 subscribers since the launch of her mukbang YouTube channel two years ago, is but a small peg in YouTube’s most powerful new machine. Mukbangs have taken the platform by storm, with top mukbang videos receiving 20 million views or more and mukbang creators procuring millions of subscribers in mere months. The term is even entering the millennial/gen-z vernacular. Picture this: Two teen girls finish off a large pizza by themselves and half-jokingly, half-worriedly determine they just had a “major mukbang.”

The mukbang, which literally translates to “eating broadcast,” originated in South Korea at the start of the last decade with a reality show that followed people around as they ate. Instantly popular, the concept was quickly adapted to an online format, with home-made eating videos popping up across AfreecaTV, a South Korean streaming site. Termed “BJs” or “broadcast jockeys,” these straight-to-camera eaters specialized in one thing and one thing only: consuming enormous, delicious meals in a single sitting. The videos tended to be conversational, with BJs openly expressing the pleasure they derived from their meals and delving into anything on their minds, no topic off limits.

Over the past few years, mukbangs have exploded on an international scale thanks to the infinite outreach of YouTube, with many of today’s most popular mukbang hosts hailing from countries on the other side of the globe from South Korea. This has, in turn, spurred a change in mukbang meal choices, with traditional Korean dishes such as kimchi and dumplings being replaced by delicacies such as McDonald’s burgers and Chick-fil-A waffle fries. The age of mukbang globalization is truly upon us.

If you’re wondering why and how a phenomenon so strange has become so untouchable, I don’t blame you. For the novice mukbang viewer, it’s difficult to understand the appeal of watching others zealously stuff themselves to levels that barely seem humanly impossible. However, several plausible explanations for the mukbang boom have recently been posed. 

“In Korea, it’s not common for people to go out to eat by themselves,” saidwriter Simon Stawski, who co-founded the food blog Eat Your Kimchi and has spent years exploring the South Korean food scene. “For those that can’t eat with others, they’ll more than likely stay home to eat alone, but they’ll still have the urge to socialize while eating, which is what I think mukbangers replicate.”

Another hypothesis from Michael Hurt, director of cultural studies at the Busan University of Foreign Studies, suggests a constant need for technological influence as a prime factor in mukbangs’ popularity in South Korea. “Korea is a society of the spectacle,” Hurt said, “and it’s gotten to the point where social interaction can’t happen—an barely be understood—without being mediated in some way.”

The friendly, informal nature of broadcast jockeys brings a feeling of authentic socialization to the solitary viewer. And considering that the “spectacle” Hurt speaks of it just as prevalent in the U.S., it seems likely that a similar social landscape has contributed to mukbangs’ American ascent.

So what’s life like as a broadcast jockey? Receiving ad monetization that pays your bills and allows you to simply eat and speak your mind online sounds good to be true, and that’s because, well—it is. According to Nicholas Perry, creator of the 1.3 million subscriber mukbang channel Nikocado Avocado, the effort required to create high-quality mukbang content is far greater than most would guess.

“It’s a full-time job. I’m the business,” Perry said. Each of his weekly videos requires several grocery store trips, hours of cooking, extensive filming, several days of editing, and major clean up, though videos he films out at restaurants typically require less work. Already, Perry has had mukbangs all over the world, from one in a Las Vegas buffet restaurant to another on a plane bound for Hawaii. As his platform has grown, he’s broadened his content to attract more viewers, tackling everything from 50 scrambled eggs to an enormous pot of rainbow noodles. 

“It’s very powerful to have millions of people following your every move to the point where they want to know what you’re doing,” Perry said. Keeping viewers on their toes, even if it means crippling stomach aches or some seriously questionable recipes, is just part of the mukbang game. Perry, in fact, admits to suffering from sexual dysfunction as a result of these constant binges. “I started having erection problems,” he said. “It never happened until I started doing mukbangs.”

What’s even more concerning than the health effects of mukbangs on broadcast jockeys is the widespread influence mukbang culture exerts on the eating habits of viewers.

“We would be concerned that watching a large amount of food being consumed may be triggering to individuals with eating disorders or who are susceptible to developing one, where the eating disorder involves restricting food intake, but also where binge eating is a factor,” said Richard Sly, clinical advisor for the eating disorder organization Beat. Not only are the foods consumed in mukbangs often unhealthy, but broadcast jockeys consume them in excessive and often dangerous quantities.

Even if mukbang creators can indulge week after week with no resulting effects on their health, it doesn’t mean this behavior should be framed as a fun, ongoing indulgence for the millions of viewers who will reap the repercussions of such eating behaviors. With the number of broadcast jockeys on YouTube and elsewhere increasing exponentially, how great an impact could mukbangs have on eating patterns, especially in a country like the U.S. already struggling extensively with obesity and eating disorders?

Others, however, view mukbangs as a positive force in maintaining sustainable diets.  “I’ve had viewers and subscribers send me countless emails over the years telling me that my videos have helped them realize that just one day of eating or hours of eating isn’t enough to make them ‘fat’ or overweight and that it’s okay to indulge once in a while,” said mukbang YouTuber Erik the Electric. “Mukbangs and having eating videos have helped me overcome my bouts with undereating—they’ve also helped me be able to be more ‘social’ around food, which is primarily what mukbangs are about.”

It remains to be seen whether the modern-day mukbang will cement itself in a bizarre corner of Internet culture or fizzle out like so many fads before it. Whether you’re of mukbang fandom or thoroughly disgusted, the best move right now seems to be to sit back, relax, and watch how this online eatery unfolds in the vast realm of global pop culture.