Are noisy YouTube binge eating videos triggering more than just joy?
Staring into the camera, Zach Choi loudly munches, slurps, chews and sucks his way through several kilos of wagyu steak and a vat of cheese fondue.
The 33-year-old’s video clip lasts around just 10 minutes and since it was posted to his YouTube channel a few weeks ago, it’s been his most popular upload to date, with nearly 4million fans tuning in to see and hear every spine-tingling bite.
With just under 10million subscribers and a staggering 1.5billion views of his videos to date, Zach, who is South Korean-American, is considered the king of a niche group of YouTubers who rake in millions by scoffing vast quantities of food on camera – and making sure they do it noisily.
This bizarre footage, complete with exaggerated eating, is said to trigger a physical sensation that some viewers feel is soothing, while others find it weird but intensely watchable. However it’s not without controversy with claims of animal cruelty and warnings it might trigger eating disorders.
A spin-off from the South Korean mukbang trend, where people live-stream themselves gorging on food, this new wave of footage is known as ASMR (autonomous sensory meridian response) eating videos, where artists take their craft further by using two microphones, known as binaural recording, to create a 3D stereo sound sensation that makes listeners feel like they’re in the same room.
Such extreme behaviour is a long way from the first intentionally triggering ASMR videos posted in 2009, which featured gentle sounds like whispering and nail tapping.
‘The experience, in which audio-visual stimuli trigger a tingling sensation on the scalp and neck along with a state of relaxation and positive mood, is thought to strongly resemble the frisson experience, sometimes referred to as “musical chills” and has some overlap with mindfulness,’ explains Dr Emma Gray, who is known as the ASMR Psychologist and has her own therapy-based YouTube channel.
‘The brain regions that are activated have been shown to be similar to those during social bonding experiences – for example, calmly sitting together, gently touching – and it is thought that as a result, ASMR triggers the release of a cocktail of hormones, including oxytocin, sometimes referred to as the “love” or “trust” hormone. These are responsible for the calming and positive impact it has on people helping them to relax and sleep.’
Its growing popularity, she adds, is down to the power of social media.
‘ASMR is thought to predate humans with something similar being observed in the grooming behaviour of primates,’ she explains. ‘However its recent boom in popularity is probably due to a number of factors, including how various platforms have allowed the community to connect and flourish, while offering a stigma-free and accessible way for people to gain support and relief from their mental health problems, including insomnia, anxiety, stress and depression.’
When it comes to understanding how eating food can be considered soothing, the ASMR Psychologist explains that while we’re still at the very beginning of learning about the impact, the triggers seem to mimic early experiences of being cared for.
‘For example, being whispered or spoken to softly,’ she says. ‘In these videos an important aspect are mouth sounds, something that you are more likely to hear if you are very close or connected to someone as they care for you, this is why creators use very sensitive microphones.’
With ASMR food videos now being viewed billions of times across the globe, the most successful YouTubers – known as ASMRtists, can earn lucrative full-time incomes through ads, affiliate links and brand deals. Social media data analyst company Social Blade estimates US-based Zach Choi earns a tasty £150,000 – £2.4million a year, while Canadian Naomi MacRae, aka Hunnibee, has racked up 4.3million subscribers, 690million views and earns as much as £165,000 a month by eating vast trays of fast food, sweets and ‘edible objects’ like hairbrushes.
If further proof of ASMRtist clout was needed, just last summer, American chocolate company Reese even released a video on social media, featuring popular YouTubers, such as ASMR Darling and Matty Tingles, sitting around a table and gently talking into headsets about the joys of eating one of their most famous products, peanut butter cups. So far the 80-minute long film has been viewed over 650,000 times.
Of course, in an ever expanding genre where binge eating and whispering between bites are common features of the videos, individual YouTubers have learned to develop their own unique styles to win fans.
The USP of hugely popular British Youtuber ASMR Mag UK is to bake hyper-realistic cake replicas of fast food and everyday objects like mobile phones. Then, wearing her signature glossy lipstick and her face half-concealed, she loudly munches her way through the lot, whispering between bites. In just a year, she’s attracted 100K subscribers and 5.8million views, with estimated earnings of up to £46,000 a year.
Like many of her peers, the mum-of-one’s identity is kept secret. Known only as Mag, she describes herself as ‘a sassy black British lady based in London’.
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Follow me✔ if you like my craft. I made you Cake Can Heinz Baked Beans along with our Heinz branded signiture cookie. Let Tuck In! You can watch full video on my YouTube channel link on bio @heinz @heinz_uk . . I am self taught and make all my edibles myself. Creating these sweet for you is my hobby. I work full time whilst rasing a little princess. I hope you can join ms and myfast growing Royals (community) on YouTube link is on the bio🤗💕 . . #asmr #asmreating #asmreatingcake #cakeasmr #edibleasmr #asmrprankfood #prankfood #asmrmaguk #royal4life #asmrvideo #youtuber #asmreatingsounds #asmrfood #asmrcommunity #asmrcake #mukbang #mukbangcakie
Her success, she explains, is down to hard work and ‘four hours sleep a night’, as Mag runs her ASMR career alongside a full-time job. She adds that the whole idea only came about because she wanted to raise money for charity.
‘I had read an article about orphans and decided to make extra income to help orphanages around the world,’ she explains. ‘Being a mother of a two-year-old, I couldn’t sit back and do nothing.’
A self-taught baker, each of Mag’s edibles takes four days to test and perfect, and she invites her fans – or Royals, as she calls them – to help choose each video’s theme.
‘Buying sweets and treats from the shop just seemed too simple, easy and lazy, ‘ she admits. ‘I wanted my channel to be something special where anyone who watched my videos would get a sense of how much effort and love went into my creation, giving them new exciting experiences in every video. When I started receiving compliments about how realistic and satisfying my ASMR was and how they made people feel safe and special, I knew I made the right decision.
‘Plus, I have such a busy life and when creating my videos I can be still,’ she adds.
However, not everyone is a fan of the ASMR phenomenon.
In April, South Korean YouTuber Ssoyoung sparked outrage when she videoed herself chomping on live squid, wiggling tentacles and all. Fellow YouTubers accused her of torturing animals.
Meanwhile, another darker, more dangerous side to the genre’s triggers is also being called out.
Mattias Strand, a senior consultant psychiatrist from the Stockholm Centre for Eating Disorders, has recently conducted the first ever study into mukbang and eating disorders and found that such videos could be ‘a destructive force’ for those more prone to eating disorders.
‘We found that watching mukbang could certainly be problematic for people who already suffer from disordered eating, in that it could trigger binge eating or serve as an inspiration for eating too little,’ he explains.
‘Some people seem to keep coming back for more and some of them probably have their own issues around eating.’
According to mental health expert Carolina Mountford, there’s definitely growing concern about the potential trail of devastation ASMR eating could leave in its wake.
‘The food consumed is almost always fried chicken, pizza and vast amounts of noodles and we know that over a sustained period of time, such nutritional choices can lead to heart disease and type 2 diabetes,’ she explains.
‘Furthermore, mukbang and ASMR eating glamorises portion sizes that are considerably bigger than what can be thought as reasonable. For people with disordered eating, watching someone “feast” on (self) restricted foods can easily trigger someone to binge and possibly purge. Evidence shows that restricting foods causes people to obsess over those “prohibited” foods.’
Becky, a Hong Kong-based YouTuber who started her channel Pikki.ASMR eight months ago, also understands concerns about the impact her videos may have on viewers.
To combat criticism, she tries to include fruit and vegetables alongside fast food, sweets and confectionery. And, she says, she stops eating when she’s full. But what about her fellow ASMR YouTubers who consume so much in their videos? ‘I do wonder about that,’ she admits. ‘Maybe they only eat one meal a day?’
Becky says that despite the fact she measures her eating, she still worries about her health.
Not only are her meals hugely calorific, but she has to record her videos late at night to avoid daytime noises like traffic and birdsong, which means eating a huge amount of food that includes buffalo wings, chicken nuggets and doner kebabs after 10pm three times a week.
‘It’s really too late at night,’ she admits, but adds that having recently hit the crucial 1,000 subscribers needed to start earning money from her videos, she isn’t ready to give up just yet. ‘I think I will give it at least one more year,’ she says. ‘I’d like to earn a stable income.’
While a recent obesity surge in South Korea has caused worried health officials to suggest mukbang might need government regulation, here in the UK, ASMR fan Yolly Littleboy explains that while the videos she watches do have an affect on how she eats, for her, it’s a positive one.
The 19-year-old medical student from Bournemouth has a sweet tooth and says that watching someone else eat chocolate and cake helps curb her own cravings for sugary foods. ‘It’s satisfying just to watch someone else eat that stuff,’ she explains.
Yolly first became aware of ASMR food videos during lockdown. Sometimes just listens to them because they help her fall asleep. ‘They make me feel so relaxed,’ she says.
Mental health expert Carolina insists that any positives linked to ASMR videos are far outweighed by the negatives of watching them.
‘At best, this phenomenon risks promoting poor habits and overeating,’ she says. ‘At worst, it can contribute to the rising numbers of individuals with eating disorders, which are serious psychiatric illnesses, as well as significantly hampering the recovery of those who are trying to get better.’
However, the ASMR Psychologist is adamant there is no connection.
‘An eating disorder is the result of an individual’s struggle to manage strong negative emotions triggered by low self esteem,’ she explains. ‘It is not the result of food or eating. Videos that feature these things – even something like a cooking tutorial – may make an individual with an eating disorder feel uncomfortable as they remind them of their illness, and as a result they may choose not to watch them.
‘But these type of food videos themselves simply do not pose a risk to those with eating disorders.
‘ASMR triggers are very individual, personal and varied in the same way that early experiences of being cared for are,’ she adds. ‘So for some people they can actually help deal with mental health issues, not cause them.’
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