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Choosing a Chocolate That's Right for You

As consumers face a large and expanding selection of premium/specialty chocolates and many new choices the NCA's Chocolate Council has put together an online consumers' guide, "Making Sense of % Cacao." The information is designed to help chocolate lovers better understand the cacao or cocoa percentage labels that appear on a growing number of chocolate and cocoa products.

The term ‘% cacao' refers to the total percentage of ingredients (by weight) which come from the cacao bean (or cocoa bean) such as chocolate liquor, cocoa butter, and cocoa powder found in a chocolate product. The term is being increasingly used in connection with premium chocolates - including dark chocolate.

"The ‘% cacao' number is a key part of what consumers should consider when searching for specific flavor intensity, whether eating a bar of chocolate or consuming it in other forms such as baking and drinking," said Alison Bodor, vice president of Scientific and Regulatory Affairs for NCA. Research. "In general, the ‘% cacao' number can guide you towards milder or deeper chocolate flavor intensity, depending on your taste preferences or the needs of your recipe."

‘% Cacao' - Characteristics of Chocolate

  • The Higher the Cacao Percentage, the Greater the Flavor Intensity: In general, a higher ‘% cacao' means a more intense chocolate flavor. For example, the U.S. cacao standards require a milk chocolate to contain at least 10% chocolate liquor. Semisweet or bittersweet chocolate must contain at least 35% chocolate liquor, resulting in a higher ‘% cacao' and a more intense chocolate flavor. White chocolate has a very different flavor profile because its entire ‘% cacao' comes from only cocoa butter.
  • Higher Percentage Equals Less Sweetness: A higher ‘% cacao' means less added sugar. For example, a 72% cacao dark chocolate has less sugar than a 60% cacao dark chocolate. Unsweetened baking chocolate is a 100% cacao product with no added sugar, and is very bitter.
  • Cacao Percentage and Flavanol Content - Not Always Related: Much of the recent positive news from the health research community is NewLinked to the presence of certain flavanol compounds in chocolate and cocoa products. While these compounds are associated with the non-fat cocoa solids, actual levels of flavanol content may fluctuate widely depending upon recipe, cocoa bean selection, subsequent processing practices, and storage & handling conditions. Therefore, ‘% cacao' may not necessarily indicate the flavanol content of chocolates.

Key Terms


The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has established Standards of Identity (food standards that ensure consumers get what they expect when purchasing products) to designate the names of the cacao products and the percentage of key ingredients that must be present.

In response to consumer interest, many chocolate manufacturers are now referencing these terms on their products' labels. Key terms include:

Cacao - Refers to the bean, which is the source of the cacao components of chocolate liquor, cocoa butter, and cocoa powder.

Chocolate Liquor - Produced by grinding the cacao bean nib (or center) to a smooth, liquid state. In the U.S., chocolate liquor is also called chocolate, unsweetened chocolate, baking chocolate, or bitter chocolate. In Canada and Europe, other names include cocoa (cacao) mass and cocoa liquor.

Cocoa Butter - The fat naturally present in cacao beans that melts at body temperature and gives chocolate its unique mouth feel. The amount of cocoa butter in cacao beans typically ranges from 50 to 60%.

Cocoa or Cocoa Powder - The product made by removing part of the fat (i.e., cocoa butter) from the cocoa bean and grinding the remaining material to a powder. Under U.S. regulations, "cocoa" and "cocoa powder" can be used synonymously.

Some products in the U.S. use the term ‘% cocoa' interchangeably with ‘% cacao.' The ‘% cocoa' on these products really is intended to refer to the total content of ingredients from cacao, not just the amount of cocoa powder. This use of the term ‘% cocoa' may create some confusion for consumers.

"To minimize confusion in the market among consumers, we encourage use of the term "% cacao" rather than ‘% cocoa,' added Bodor.

Background of Cacao and Cocoa


The use of ‘% cacao' originates in Europe where chocolates must be labeled to indicate the minimum total cocoa solids. ‘Cocoa solids' are often stated as ‘% Cacao' (France, Spain), ‘% Kakao' (Germany), or ‘% Cocoa' (UK).

In the U.S., chocolate manufacturers are not required to declare the ‘% cacao.' However, due to the increased consumer interest in learning more about chocolate, some manufacturers are choosing to provide more information that enhances the chocolate experience.

"Similar to the surge in consumer interest in origin and taste experiences that the wine and coffee industries have seen, so too has people's curiosity evolved about their chocolate," added Susan Smith, Senior Vice President with NCA's Chocolate Council. "We wanted to provide consumers with useful information for a greater appreciation of this trend, as cacao terminology becomes increasingly more important."