American YouTubers vary more widely in ethnic background, gender, and cultural background than Korean, of course, from Nicholas Perry, also known as Nikocado Avocado (two million subscribers) to Kim Thai’s Eat with Kim, (over 400,000 subscribers).
Another difference is that Korean mukangers tend to eat traditional Korean dishes. In contrast, American mukbangers eat a wider variety of foods, from rare tropical fruit to ramen to smoked alligator, often based on theme challenges.
But why are millions of people so drawn to watching perfect strangers eat in the first place? It’s a combination of sensory, psychological, social, emotional, environmental -- even neurological factors, says Rachel Herz, a neuroscientist and adjunct professor at Brown University Alpert Medical School as well as the author of Why You Eat What You Eat. Her specialty is analyzing how food triggers our senses and develops our behavior when it comes to what we like to eat.
A big part of that neurological factor is the ASMR (autonomous sensory-motor response) mukbang videos can elicit. ASMR is commonly described as a brain-tingling feeling, and people find it very relaxing. The familiar sounds of eating (slurping, chewing) and the imagery of mukbang videos supposedly trigger ASMR for many viewers.
“The sound has a huge impact [and] is an extremely [important] aspect of it because you are not getting the sensory piece part of the experience yourself,” says Herz.
This genre has proven to be very lucrative for content creators, often earning them sponsorships from popular food chains and restaurants in exchange for the exposure. According to NPR, Korean mukbang hosts reportedly can earn up to $10,000 per month and that standard is quickly traveling to America, with brands like DoorDash and Popeye’s Chicken sponsoring the most popular YouTubers. Kim Thai, for example, has been earning upwards of $100,000 a year.
The trend has not come without its criticism, however, with many saying that mukbang triggers those with eating disorders, and that vulnerable viewers could potentially develop unhealthy eating habits from watching. YouTuber Nicholas Perry has received criticism from viewers over abusive behavior and raised concerns over his mental health. He later revealed in a podcast interview that he left mukbang to focus on a vegan lifestyle and minimize the health concerns that came from his extreme eating.
For YouTubers, chasing mukbang stardom means taking on a high-calorie diet, which can cause health problems. Registered dietician and wellness YouTuber Abbey Sharp has been very critical about the mukbang wave. In a viral video she condemns the negative side effects.