Dubai: Food challenges are great – no matter what kind – whether its recipes, a cook-along, or even reactions. The thing about challenges is the fact that the right challenge goes viral in the blink of an eye. One such challenge is the Korean mukbang (pronounced “mook-bang”) challenge, which surfaced in 2009.
This 11-year challenge has remained one of the most watched and trending food challenges across all social media platforms, especially since the videos have creators interacting with their viewers during the 10- to 40-minute-long videos.
According to YouTube Culture and Trends, views of videos related to ‘mukbang’ were more than three times higher in 2019 than the year before.
As of today, the challenge still receives over a million views, multiple uploads and an even higher number of reactions, likes, shares and even comments. That being said, here’s a look into the challenge and why it’s still famous.
What is mukbang?
A portmanteau of two Korean words – Meokneun (eating) and Bangsong (broadcast) – mukbang and (or) ASMR (autonomous sensory meridian response) eating videos emerged in Korea as a part of the internet eating culture, and has found favour among several YouTube viewers all over the world today.
Mukbang may be exclusive to Korea, but the challenge has taken its form in other Asian countries (primarily) and now beyond. Whether it is the native food of China, or a simple challenge of gobbling up a number of burgers from a fast-food joint – the mukbang challenge has broken cultural barriers, uniting people all over the world.
Apart from this – while Korea is known for its strict and healthy food practices – the mukbang challenge has been quite a topic of interest especially since it has been involved in several controversies – from kidnapped YouTubers, to animal cruelty, food wastage, and even the promotion of unhealthy food habits.
But before we debunk all of this, first things first…
Why is it so popular?
The minute a Google search on ‘mukbang’ is made, the results are plenty. Similarly, for a food challenge such as the ‘mukbang challenge’, the only thing to keep in mind is that there are innumerable outcomes, endless possibilities and an unlimited amount of food.
Pretty sure there have been days where we have all felt a hunger so strong that we could wolf down an entire menu. Yes, it is quite impossible, unless you are one among the YouTubers with a good appetite. One of the advantages (or disadvantages) about the mukbang trend is that it shot to global fame especially since it was influenced by Korean pop idols - popular music groups such as SHINee, Doojoon, INFINITE's Sunggyu, among others.
The extreme-eating trend first started after it was streamed live on a television channel in 2009. It rose to popularity the following year and has remained consistently popular ever since.
Today, the challenge continues all over the world with YouTubers still uploading their versions of the internet food trend. The challenge can be trying out the spiciest dishes, eating a large number of food items, or even eating them raw and uncooked.
Yes, the mukbang challenge has been shared and viewed a million times over, but is it really the message we are rooting for? The challenge may be a visual treat for some, but over the years several social media creators have faced criticism, which then paved the way for more backlash.
Is it promoting food wastage?
In 2020, China took a collective decision of banning over 13,600 mukbang accounts and their videos (all social media platforms included). This was done by the Chinese government as part of its campaign on addressing the rise in food wastage. The challenge was termed as ‘wasteful’ and also caters to poor eating habits which in turn will cause several eating disorders and health problems for people in the future.
In an article by the New York Post, fines of up to 100,000 Chinese yuan (about $15,500) could be issued to media platforms and publishers who disseminate content featuring “large amounts of eating, overeating” and food waste otherwise.
Personally, I feel like it is not appealing to watch people eat a lot of food for the fun of it, especially because they consume more than one person can practically handle.
Several viewers of the mukbang challenge also agree that this could cause food wastage to hike up. “The challenge is simply done for the number of views and likes. It doesn’t really do any good, especially since there’s so much wastage of food. I don’t see the thrill of it, honestly,” says 25-year-old Arun Cherian John, an active social media user in Dubai.
What does this mean in terms of animal cruelty?
To make things worse, several claims of the mukbang trend promoting animal cruelty has surfaced, especially since several YouTubers such as Ssoyoung has been eating live octopuses, lobsters, crabs, sharks and even fish.
This has caused quite an uproar among several viewers and animal activists who have continued to criticise her for inflicting cruelty during or before consumption. When asked about it, Ssoyoung replied saying that the consumption of sea creatures is a part of the Korean culture.
Petitions were also raised by several people to ban videos that showcase animal abuse and cruelty.
In another incident – molluscs such as geoducks and worms such as Urechis unicinctus (fat innkeeper worm) – were consumed raw.
Are mukbang vloggers forced to do the challenge?
When watching a video, how many of us actually pay attention to the details? Ardent mukbang netizens have claimed that popular YouTube mukbang creator Kate Yup was allegedly kidnapped and made to consume the food platter in front of her.
Kate – who keeps her identity in wraps by using a blindfold – was seen to have a deep bruise on her left hand, and a busted lip. When asked about this, she confirmed by saying that it was a sunburn and that she was suffering from herpes labialis.
This soon caught the attention of several conspiracy theorists, who started decoding all her videos and claimed that she was abducted and forced to make these videos. A few of her videos had a secondary voice which said things like “fast”, “hurry up”, “just eat”, and also went to the extreme of saying, “I'm going to kill you”.
Of course, comments were not left ignored. In one of her videos, her comment, "The meat is So delicioOouS, soft and tender", was especially highlighted because of her choice of capitalising the letters ‘S-O-S’ (Save Our Ship). In another incident – YouTubers found that in four of her comments – the initial letters ‘H-E-L-P’ were capitalised, which then gained further attention.
Viewers have also claimed that in her videos the table has been shaken, and that she has also communicated to her viewers subtly through Morse code.
Kate Yup is also a recipient of the internet backlash, which surfaced for consuming live aquatic creatures as well. As of today, her last mukbang video was posted on November 19, 2019.
Is it glorifying eating disorders?
Gulf News spoke to Dr Shipra Rai – Internal Medicine Specialist, Prime Medical Centre, Al Qassimia, Sharjah on how the challenge affects those with eating disorders, and here’s what she had to say:
Being frequently exposed to visual and audio stimuli of excessive eating (with the mukbangers’ excessive demonstration of pleasure and satisfaction from eating) would manipulate viewers’ eating habits and their relationship with food, which would further exacerbate eating disorders.
“The mukbang phenomenon is simultaneously useful and hurtful. Several studies have shown that problematic mukbang watching was associated with both disordered eating and internet addiction. It also appears that being visually exposed to others’ eating promoted unhealthy eating practices and it could also be incredibly triggering for those with eating disorders such as anorexia, bulimia and binge eating disorder and trigger a relapse into loss-of-control eating.
“Individuals that frequently watch mukbang may consume more than they normally would because individuals’ consumption could easily be affected by others’ eating habits and mukbangers typically eat large portions of food during a single broadcast."
Is it recommended in the long run?
Financially, the challenge does have a few perks. Mukbang creators are said to make a minimum of US $10,000 (Dh36,729.85 approximately) without partnerships, just to eat on camera.
In terms of health, there could be serious complications in the future. Gulf News also spoke to Veenisha Fatnani – a nutritionist based in New Country Healthcare, Dubai – and here’s what she had to say:
“From a nutrition point of view, the challenge results in a large increase of calorie count in the day through meals, which can contain huge amounts of fried food. This can result in weight gain and a loss of healthy dining practices. While a number of chronic diseases like diabetes, cholesterol and obesity are increasing today, the challenge does not appear to be an ideal choice in promoting healthy eating in times like these.
It is not just the challenge takers, but also the viewers which are impacted since dopamine (reward hormone) released through videos is detrimental for the brain in the long run. Instead, healthy dopamine inducing foods like bananas, yogurt, healthy snacking including almonds and walnuts are better for increasing your overall well-being.
“Apart from weight gain being one of the outcomes, the challenge can cause a rise in the triglyceride levels, which affects overall cholesterol in the body. Gut health and mental health are interlinked as well, as huge amounts of fast food can cause bloating and acidity issues, reduction in gut bacteria, these can directly affect our mood,” says Fatnani.
The mukbang challenge still continues to entertain viewers all over the world, but the real question lies – is it really worth it?