What Does Cacao Percentage Mean on a Chocolate Bar?

Woman eating chocolate bar

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It's important, but higher isn't always better.

When shopping for good chocolate, one thing you should look for is the cacao or cocoa percentage. This generally tells you the ratio of cocoa bean mix to sugar and other ingredients in the chocolate product. In fact, the cacao percentage might be a better determinant of how sweet a product is than common descriptions like milk, semisweet, or bittersweet, since sugar content and chocolate quality based on such labels can vary from company to company. 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 Fine Chocolate Industry Association, the fermented and dried seeds of a Theobroma tree, also known as cocoa beans, are further processed in order to create chocolate liquor, cocoa butter, and cocoa powder. Cocoa percentage refers to the amount of all three—chocolate liquor, cocoa butter, and cocoa powder—in a chocolate product. You can take the cacao percentage on the label and know that the remainder comprises whatever fillers and/or flavors the manufacturer has added. This could include sugar, dairy, soy lecithin, vegetable oil, vanilla, etc.

What does the percentage mean?

Generally, the higher the percentage, the more bitter the chocolate and often, the more intense the flavor. For this reason, unsweetened chocolate, a.k.a. bitter chocolate, which contains 100 percent cocoa bean product, is only suitable for baking. But it's important to note that chocolate with higher percentages of cacao product aren't always unpleasant. Depending on the manufacturer and the specific combination of chocolate liquor, cocoa butter, and cocoa powder, a chocolate in the bittersweet range can be downright luxurious.

Bittersweet chocolate has at least 35% cacao, but often has around 70%, with added sugar and other fillers depending on manufacturer. Semisweet chocolate has at least 35 percent as well, but usually hovers around 55 percent. Milk chocolate only has to have 10 percent cacao at minimum and 12 percent milk solids. Because of the added milk, these chocolate products have a sweeter and milder flavor, and are usually the creamiest.

Which is healthiest?

Cacao is known to contain nutritious flavonoids, which are antioxidants that provide anti-inflammatory, heart-protecting, mood-lifting, brain-boosting 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 Fine Chocolate Industry Association 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 fair trade-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.

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."

"I’ve had chocolate bars that are 99% cacao that were palatable and oIn other words, taste it and see for yourself what you think.

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