Chocolate

Here’s What That Percentage on Your Chocolate Bar Actually Means

March 13, 2017

Many people are still confused about the cocoa or cacao percentage on chocolate bar labels, even if they don’t want to admit it. What does the percentage actually mean?

Depending on context, cocoa and cacao can mean different things, but when it comes to the percentage on a bar of chocolate, the two terms are used interchangeably for the same thing.

No matter the percentage, I'll eat 'em! Photo by James Ransom

Call it cocoa or cacao, the percentage on a chocolate bar tells you how much of the bar, by weight, is made from pure cacao beans, or parts thereof—such as cocoa butter (the fat portion of the bean), often added to make chocolate creamier, or, in some very specialized cases, cocoa solids (the non fat part of the bean). The latter is used to increase flavor intensity in bars designed for chefs. In other words: beans + any extra parts of beans = cacao or cocoa percentage.

You can use the percentage as a general indicator of chocolate flavor intensity versus sweetness. The higher the percentage, the more intense and less sweet the chocolate: dark chocolate labeled 50% will be far sweeter than a 70% bar. But chocolate makers are hissing as I type these words, because they want you to know that even if two different chocolates have the same percentage, they can vary noticeably in sweetness, flavor, and intensity. Not only can bean varieties vary in sweetness and flavor, but different chocolate makers add different amounts of cocoa butter—or none at all—to their chocolate, which affects sweetness and intensity. But I’m just trying to paint the broad picture here, as it applies to the chocolate nibbler.

In a bar of dark chocolate—where the ingredients are simply cocoa beans plus parts of cocoa beans (see above), sugar, and tiny amounts of optional vanilla and lecithin—the percentage on the label also tell you about sugar content: a 70% bar contains about 30% sugar, and a 55% bar contains about 45% sugar. Get my drift?

Milk chocolate contains milk or cream in addition to cocoa beans and sugar. But here’s a hint: 38%–40% cacao is on the high side for milk chocolate, so any bar labeled 38% or more will be less sweet and more chocolaty.

The key thing to remember is that cacao percentage is a measure of quantity, not necessarily quality.

Do you have a favorite chocolate percentage? Tell us in the comments!

2 Comments

Verene March 13, 2017
Just a note on how percentage cocoa may not be the whole story with regards to how chocolate tastes: I attended the Northwest Chocolate Festival here in Seattle a couple years ago, where a couple different chocolate makers explained that the darkness to which the beans are roasted affects flavor, as well as percentage cocoa. I tasted bars from the same brand that were both the same percentage cocoa (around 60%, as I recall), but one was "light roasted", one was "medium roasted", and one was "dark roasted". The lighter the roast, the sweeter and milkier the chocolate tasted (despite equal cocoa butter content); the darker the roast, the more intense and bitter (in that delicious chocolatey way) the chocolate tasted. As a lover of chocolate, I was quite interested to learn that, so I thought I'd pass it on!
 
Melina H. March 13, 2017
Thanks for demystifying the numbers, Alice. I was in the ballpark but this clarified it so nicely. <br /><br />I love pretty much everything Theo chocolate out of Seattle makes, especially because they omit soy lecithin. For a fancier bar, love the Blanxart 82% and the Fine&Raw coconut truffle bar! :)