When you see “% cacao” printed on a label, it refers to the total percentage of ingredients by weight in that product that come from the cocoa bean, including the chocolate liquor and cocoa butter. The term is found most often on premium chocolates, especially dark chocolate. (Learn about the differences between dark, milk and white chocolate.)
It’s a guide to specific flavor intensity. The numbers point to milder or deeper chocolate flavor. Finding this number on the label can help you choose a chocolate that matches your taste preferences or your recipe’s needs.
What do the numbers indicate? Higher cacao percentages equal the following:
- Greater Flavor Intensity: In general, a higher “% cacao” lends a more intense chocolate flavor. For example, the United States cacao standards require a milk chocolate to contain at least 10 percent chocolate liquor. Semisweet or bittersweet chocolate must contain at least 35 percent chocolate liquor, resulting in a higher “% cacao” and a more intense chocolate flavor.
Remember that cacao percentage refers to cocoa butter as well. With white chocolate, the entire “% cacao” comes from cocoa butter, so it has a very different flavor profile.
- Less Sweetness: A higher “% cacao” means less added sugar. For example, a 72 percent cacao dark chocolate has roughly 12 percent less sugar than a 60 percent cacao dark chocolate. Unsweetened baking chocolate is 100 percent cacao with no added sugar, and it is very bitter.
- Varying Amounts of Flavanol Content: Chocolate has received much positive news from health researchers because of its flavanols. While these compounds are present in chocolate liquor and cocoa powder, actual levels of flavanols in a particular product may fluctuate widely depending upon the recipe, cocoa beans used, processing practices, and storage and handling conditions. Therefore, “% cacao” may not necessarily indicate a chocolate’s flavanol content.
You may also see the term “% cocoa” interchangeably with “% cacao.” On these products, the “% cocoa” refers to the total content of ingredients from cacao, not cocoa powder.
To ensure that buyers get what they expect, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration established Standards of Identity that describe components of chocolate. In response to their customers’ interest, many chocolate manufacturers now voluntarily show these terms on their products' labels:
- Cacao: Refers to the bean, which is the source of chocolate liquor, cocoa butter and cocoa powder.
- Chocolate Liquor: Produced by grinding the center of bean, called the nib, to a smooth, liquid state. Chocolate liquor is also called chocolate, unsweetened chocolate, baking chocolate, bitter chocolate, cocoa solids, cocoa mass, cacao mass and cocoa paste.
- Cocoa Butter: The fat naturally present in cacao beans that melts at body temperature and gives chocolate its unique mouthfeel.
- Cocoa or Cocoa Powder: The product made by pressing most of the cocoa butter out of the cocoa bean and grinding the rest to a powder. Under U.S. regulations, “cocoa” and “cocoa powder” can be used synonymously.
A farmer must wait four to five years for a cacao tree to produce its first beans.