It's important, but higher isn't always better.
When shopping for good chocolate, one thing you should look for is the cacao percentage. This tells you far more about the quality and taste of a product than simple descriptions such as milk, semisweet, or bittersweet. Here's a quick guide to deciphering cacao percentages before you head out to do any Valentine's Day shopping.
What is a cacao percentage?
This number denotes how much of a chocolate bar is made of actual cocoa bean product. According to The Greatist, this product is made up of "chocolate liquor, which refers to a combination of cocoa solids (ground cocoa powder) and cocoa butter (the naturally occurring fat in the cacao bean)."
You can take the cacao percentage on the label and know that the remainder comprises whatever fillers the manufacturer has added. This could be sugar, dairy, soy lecithin, vegetable oil, vanilla, etc.
What does the percentage mean?
The higher the percentage, the more bitter the chocolate. That's why unsweetened chocolate, a.k.a. bitter chocolate, which contains 100 percent cocoa bean product, is only suitable for baking. Semisweet chocolate has at least 35 percent cacao, but usually around 55 percent, with added sugar, but no dairy. Milk chocolate only has to have 10 percent cacao at minimum and 12 percent milk solids. This gives it a creamy, rich taste, but all the added sugar makes it much sweeter too.
Which is healthiest?
Cacao is known to contain nutritious flavonoids, which are antioxidants that "provide heart-protecting, anti-inflammatory, brain-boosting, mood-lifting properties." A once-a-week chocolate habit has even been linked to improved cognitive performance! It's only natural that the more cacao a bar contains, the more of those flavonoids it will have, not least of all because there's less room for additives.
As The Greatist article points out, however, these percentages only measure quantity, not quality. There is more that goes into the making of a chocolate bar than the addition of cocoa bean product. A discerning shopper should also consider where the bean is from, since those grown in West Africa tend to be a higher quality product than those from Central America. Organic cacao will be healthier too, free from trace pesticides. Look, too, at whether the bar is fairtrade-certified. While that logo is more indicative of ethical labor practices, this usually translates into happier farmers with improved access to resources that result in a better product. (Read: Why we need to pay more for chocolate)
The production process matters as well; fewer ingredients, careful roasting, and skilled blending of the beans will result in a more nutritious product. You are more likely to find that when buying chocolate from smaller-scale producers, not giant candy corporations.
Which is most delicious?
When it comes down to it, this is the most important question of all. Really, it's up to your own tastebuds to determine that. After all this talk of cacao percentages, American chef and food writer David Lebovitz thinks people should stop obsessing about the numbers so much. He writes:
"I’ve had chocolate bars that are 99% cacao that were palatable and other bars that were 80% cacao that were bitter and inedible (and I like very bitter chocolate.) I’ve had 90% bars that were amazingly good and smooth, while others were 60% and were crumbly and mushy."
In other words, taste it and see for yourself what you think.