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.
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!
My career was sparked by a single bite of a chocolate truffle, made by my Paris landlady in 1972. I returned home to open this country’s first chocolate bakery and dessert shop, Cocolat, and I am often “blamed” for introducing chocolate truffles to America. Today I am the James Beard Foundation and IACP award-winning author of ten cookbooks, teach a chocolate dessert class on Craftsy.com, and work with some of the world’s best chocolate companies. In 2018, I won the IACP Award for Best Food-Focused Column (this one!).