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This Korean Food Phenomenon Is Changing the Internet

Meet the American YouTubers who are now trying to cash in on mukbang

Amy McCarthy is a reporter at Eater.com, focusing on pop culture, policy and labor, and only the weirdest online trends.

As 10 slices of bacon sizzle on an electric griddle, YouTube star Nicholas P. prepares to eat an epic feast — the entire package of bacon is cooking just for him. Once the bacon is crisp, Nicholas, who goes by the name Nikocado Avocado on YouTube (and requests that naming convention is used here), removes it from the warm griddle and dumps on two bags of Nacho Cheese Doritos. From off camera, Nikocado Avocado grabs a pan of noodles drenched in a homemade cheese sauce, twirls up a forkful, and the eating begins — not just for him, but for the thousands of viewers who queue up his videos on YouTube every day to share in the experience. Nikocado Avocado is a “mukbanger,” or the host of his very own pre-recorded eating show.

Nikocado Avocado’s YouTube channel is just one of hundreds of mukbang-dedicated accounts that have cropped up in recent years. The videos, which feature YouTubers eating massive, calorie-rich spreads, originated in South Korea in the mid-2000s when enterprising food enthusiasts began broadcasting live feeds of themselves eating giant portions of top-quality beef, vegetables, and other foods.

Most of the time, mukbang hosts film their videos at home in front of an electric burner or several containers of delivered food. Sometimes, though, these personalities venture out into actual restaurants to film their videos. Just this week, Nikocado Avocado filmed mukbangs at Applebee's and Chick-fil-A, the latter of which took place just a few hours after he married his fiance. Other mukbangers film themselves eating in the car after hitting up a drive-thru at Taco Bell or Sonic Drive-In.

Mukbang has become YouTube’s hottest food trend, and not for the fetish-related reasons you might think. Dining has always been inherently social. Despite the proliferation of smartphone apps that can deliver food to fuel the most furtive binges, humans still have a natural desire to share a meal with good company. “I honestly think it’s appealing because people want someone to eat with,” says California-based mukbanger Ashley Sprankles. “A lot of people are working and they don’t have someone to sit down with for dinner at night and it fills a void. They’re lonely, and they want to eat with someone.”

In South Korea, millions tune in live every evening to watch their favorite mukbang hosts, forming a cultural phenomenon that makes its most popular creators thousands of dollars per night in advertising revenue, viewer donations, and sponsorships. Mukbang may not have the same pop-culture preeminence here in the U.S., but watching people eat thousands of calories in a single sitting has grown into a full-blown viral sensation, one that has found an American audience that is uniquely interested in watching strangers eat.

What Is American Mukbang?

Mukbang was virtually unknown in the United States until 2015, when Fine Brothers Entertainment uploaded a video of popular YouTube stars reacting to Korean eating shows. A few days after the video was released, Google searches for the term skyrocketed. The reactions ranged from awe to horror, but one thing was for sure: YouTubers were ridiculously interested in mukbang (the original Fine Brothers video, as of this writing, has amassed 6.38 million views on the digital video platform).

Just a few weeks later, as the reactions video was still racking up views, longtime YouTube user Trisha Paytas made her own mukbang video, in which she ate cupcakes, chips, eggs, and toast. Since it was uploaded in late April 2015, Paytas’ first mukbang has gained more than 1.7 million views.

Mukbang was a pretty natural transition for Paytas, who had already amassed a sizable following of more than a million subscribers in more than 10 years of posting videos to the platform. Before moving onto mukbang, Paytas posted dozens of “haul” videos where she showed off scores from her trips to Sephora, Target, and Barnes and Noble. Judging by subscriber counts on YouTube, Paytas is the most popular American mukbanger. She’s uploaded dozens of mukbang videos, featuring everything from pizza to a baker’s dozen of chocolate doughnuts.

A vampy blonde, Paytas is known for emphasizing chewing, slurping, and smacking sounds as she eats, and the stream-of-consciousness commentary that she shares during her meals. “I’m going all out tonight because I have a lot of emotions. I was sad, now I’m happy, now I’m hungry,” she says in the introduction of one video titled “Emotional Eating Mukbang.” “We’re going to talk about all of the emotions right now with the food I got from Jerry’s Deli.”

In that way, American mukbang videos are quite different from their Korean inspiration. Korean mukbang are most often broadcast live on platforms like Afreeca TV, while American videos are generally pre-recorded and uploaded to YouTube. Also noticeably different is the talking. In Korean broadcasts, the hosts are largely silent, which means that the focus is almost entirely on the actual act of eating. In the United States, though, mukbang more closely resembles dining with a friend that just happens to live inside your computer. “The process of a real Korean mukbang video is that you do not speak,” says Sprankles. “You just eat an abundance of food. I think we’ve Americanized it to where I’m talking about how I’m feeling that day or telling a story from my past.”

Unlike Paytas, Sprankles is a relative newcomer to making mukbang videos, having filmed her first just this year. A photographer and culinary school grad, she amassed a significant following on Instagram before filming her first eating show. “I didn’t know how to combine my loves for food photography and film. Mukbang made all the connections,” she says. “I just started doing videos and since then, it’s grown from being an eating show to a place where I talk about being positive and why it’s important to be a good person. I’ve made so many connections with people not only because they want to eat with me, but also because they like what I have to say.”

The Appeal of Mukbang

Those among us who loathe listening to their dinner guests chew may struggle to find mukbang’s appeal, but some people actually seek out these videos to provoke an ASMR, or autonomous sensory motor response, which is described as a “brain tingle” by its proponents. These videos may seem like a bizarre cultural curiosity, but the thousands of people who tune into their favorite mukbang broadcasts every day make a much deeper connection with the content. And thus, the talking.

Nikocado Avocado, who has given his throng of followers the nickname “little sloths,” also sees that yearning for interaction in his following. “Most of the videos people see on YouTube are very polished and highly edited. It’s almost like a TV production, and it feels not real,” he says. “People enjoy seeing real talk and instant thoughts. When you’re eating, your mind is racing. You’re getting glucose in the brain, you’re getting so many sensations all at one time.”

For some fans, though, watching mukbang broadcasts is less about interacting with a familiar face than it is eating vicariously. Most mukbang feasts are incredibly high-calorie — sometimes mukbang video creators consume more than 10,000 calories in a single video. In a time when there’s a new restrictive dietary fad popping up daily (like the gluten-free or paleo crazes), it makes sense that a carb-deprived health junkie would find some satisfaction in watching a stranger mainline a dozen Doritos Locos tacos from Taco Bell.

“It makes your own virtues apparent because you’re not doing that. The people in these videos are doing something worse than you would ever do, and that makes you feel better about yourself in comparison,” says Traci Mann, Ph.D, a professor of social and health psychology at the University of Minnesota. “Maybe you think ‘I ate too much today, but I didn’t eat that much. Maybe it’s ‘I wish I could binge that much, but I can’t, so I’m going to watch this guy binge instead.’”

It’s an extreme example, but the idea of vicariously enjoying foods that one cannot (or perhaps should not) eat has some scientific backing. In 1944, scientists at the University of Minnesota enlisted 36 men who were conscientious objectors during World War II and placed them on highly restrictive, “semi-starvation” diets over a period of 24 weeks. As time went on, many of the study’s participants developed depression and found themselves withdrawing from social interaction.

Most notably, though, the men involved in the study, called the Minnesota Starvation Study, overwhelmingly became preoccupied with food. “The volunteers often reported that they got a vivid, vicarious pleasure from watching other persons eat or just from smelling food,” reads researcher Ancel Keys’s published findings.

Mukbang video stars have earned their fair share of hate from people who deprive themselves of “bad” foods in pursuit of eating clean. “There are always going to be people who comment and tell me that I shouldn’t be eating something ‘unhealthy,’ but we’ve all snuck away and had treats that we weren’t supposed to have,” says Sprankles. “That’s okay; it’s part of life. People are eating through me instead of them having to eat. A lot of my viewers are people on their diet journeys. Someone wrote on my video yesterday that they were eating grapes while watching me eat, and it was like they could taste the food that I was eating.”

Despite the trolls, though, it is still salty, fatty foods that really rack up the YouTube views for most mukbangers. “People want to see the junk. They want to watch people eat things that they can’t eat,” says Nikocado Avocado. “I get that. A few years ago, when I was on a really restrictive diet, I would just type ‘someone eating macaroni and cheese’ into Google and watch... There’s an entertainment factor. If I were to post salad mukbangs, I would not get the views that I do today.”

The Future

As more people tune in, the American style of mukbang is changing. The videos are becoming more and more about a viewer’s ability to interact with a host they like and hear messages that appeal to them. “I think this is just the beginning. It’s going to explode into a huge craze,” says Sprankles. “There is a flood of new people every day and it’s captivating. [Mukbang] really is empowering for people who have had issues with eating, and it’s a great platform for creators to express how they feel. I think that it’s going to grow and grow.”

Mukbang is still relatively niche in the United States, but its presence has grown dramatically in recent years and is still trending upward. Online streaming platform Twitch, previously used almost exclusively by gamers, recently added a social-eating channel to its lineup. ”Social Eating is an experiment that surfaced in response to popular demand from our video game streamers in South Korea,” says a spokesman for the company. “We were already aware of the movement for some time, but it became a more prominent area of interest with our community in the year leading up to the launch of the category.”

For Mann, though, the health implications of mukbang’s growing popularity seem stark, especially for the people who consume thousands of calories in pursuit of YouTube stardom. “I worry about the people who make these videos because it’s very unhealthy,” she says. “If you think of watching the videos in some way as encouraging these videos, I think that’s a problem.” In Korea, mukbang stars like BJ (or “broadcast jockey”) Banzz have simply adapted to their excessive new diets. Reportedly, the muscular Banzz exercises more than 6 to 10 hours every day and eats a bland diet mostly comprising chicken breasts when he isn’t dining on camera.

Despite those concerns, American mukbang personalities are looking toward a future where they can get paid handsomely for eating. In Korea, mukbang hosts reportedly earn up to $10,000 per month, according to NPR. That hasn’t happened just yet in the United States, but creators are itching to pair with big brands as mukbang’s popularity continues to rise.

“Hopefully, I can continue to grow and get more contact with brands like McDonald’s or Jack in the Box. Maybe one day I could be in a commercial,” says Sprankles. “I totally want to reach for the stars and work with as many brands as I can and grow as much as I can. I think people generally like what I have to say. Maybe at one point I could be on talk shows and talk to people about life and food and why it’s okay to be who you are.”

Amy McCarthy is the editor of Eater Dallas and Eater Houston. She never wants to see anyone eat again.
Editor: Erin DeJesus