What Does Chocolate Percentage Mean? (Is Higher Better?)

baking chocolate

You may have seen the words “chocolate percentage” on the label for a chocolate bar.  Perhaps you have simply seen a number such as “80%” written on the label for a bar of chocolate.  If you are wondering what this means, you are not alone.

So, what does chocolate percentage mean?  The chocolate percentage on a label tells you how much of the chocolate, by weight, is made from ingredients that come directly from cacao beans.  These ingredients include chocolate liquor (cocoa liquor) and cocoa butter.

As you can guess, the quality of chocolate varies depending on many factors, such as where the cacao beans were grown, how the cacao beans were processed, and the sweeteners or flavorings added to the finished product.

Let’s take a closer look at chocolate percentages and what they mean.  Then we’ll get into the different types of chocolate, including unsweetened, bittersweet, semisweet, and milk chocolates.

What Does Chocolate Percentage Mean?

As mentioned above, the chocolate percentage on a label tells you how much of the chocolate, by weight, comes from ingredients derived from cacao beans.  The rest of the bar is made up of other ingredients, such as sugar.

cacao pod
The chocolate percentage tells you how much of the bar, by weight, is made from products that come directly from cacao beans.

For example, let’s say that a particular type of chocolate bar is labelled 80% chocolate.  Then a 100-gram chocolate bar would contain 80 grams of ingredients derived from cocoa beans.  The other 20 grams in the chocolate bar would come from things like

  • sweeteners (such as sugar or corn syrup)
  • milk (in milk chocolate, white chocolate, and some dark chocolate)
  • emulsifiers to improve consistency and texture (such as soy lecithin)
  • flavorings to enhance the taste of the chocolate (such as vanilla or vanillin)

A higher chocolate percentage means that there is less room for sweeteners and other ingredients.  A less sweetened chocolate will have a stronger, more intense chocolate flavor.

In fact, some people find that high percentage chocolates are too bitter to be palatable.  However, it all depends on your taste, which can evolve as you get older or wean yourself off of sugary chocolates.

One thing to keep in mind is that two chocolate bars with the same percentage of chocolate on the label can have different percentages of cocoa solids and cocoa butter (more on cocoa solids and cocoa butter later).

This can lead to big differences in the flavor, consistency, and melting point of these chocolates.

For example, one type of 80% chocolate could have 30% cocoa solids and 50% cocoa butter, while another could have 40% cocoa solids and 40% cocoa butter.  In both cases, the percentages add up to 80%, but the flavor and consistency of each type of chocolate will be different.

Also, remember that differences in the type of cacao beans (where they are grown) and processing (such as fermenting and roasting) can also cause differences in flavor.

What Ingredients Are Derived From Cacao Beans?

The ingredients derived from cacao beans include both chocolate liquor and cocoa butter.

Chocolate liquor, or cocoa liquor, is made from cocoa beans.  According to the USDA, “Chocolate liquor contains not less than 50 percent nor more than 60 percent by weight of cacao fat.”

(Note: cacao fat and cocoa butter are two terms for the same thing).

To make chocolate liquor, you start by fermenting, drying, and roasting the cacao beans.  Then, you remove the skins and grind what remains into a paste called the cocoa mass.

Finally, you melt this paste (the cocoa mass) to produce chocolate liquor.  Despite its name, chocolate liquor should not be confused with alcoholic beverages.

With further processing, chocolate liquor can be separated into two parts: cocoa solids (such as cocoa powder, which gives chocolate its brown color) and cocoa butter.

Cocoa butter is the fat (oil) found naturally in cocoa beans.

Cocoa powder is often used for baking, and may be sweetened or unsweetened.

What Are The Types Of Chocolate?

Chocolate can be classified depending on the chocolate percentage, the presence of cocoa solids, and the presence of milk.  Chocolate types include white, milk, dark, and unsweetened chocolate.

White Chocolate

White chocolate is unique in that it contains no cocoa solids at all.  For this reason, some people refuse to consider it true chocolate.

The lack of cocoa solids is the reason that this chocolate is white instead of brown. 

white and dark chocolate
White chocolate lacks a brown color due to the absence of cocoa solids.

White chocolate contains at least 20% cocoa butter, at least 3.5% milkfat, and at least 14% total milk solids by weight.  It also contains at most 55% sweeteners by weight.

Milk Chocolate

Milk chocolate contains both cocoa solids and cocoa butter.  However, it contains less total chocolate from cacao than dark chocolate.  This usually means that milk chocolate contains more sugar than dark chocolate.

milk chocolate
Milk chocolate contains some cocoa solids, so it has a brown color. However, it contains less chocolate liquor than dark chocolate does.

Milk chocolate contains at least 10% chocolate liquor, at least 3.39% milkfat, and at least 12% total milk solids by weight.  (Note: this means that milk chocolate can, in theory, contain less milk than white chocolate).

Dark Chocolate

Dark chocolate also contains both cocoa solids and cocoa butter.  It has more chocolate liquor and less sugar than milk chocolate.

dark chocoalte
Dark chocolate, such as semisweet or bittersweet chocolate chips, are often used for baking.

Dark chocolate includes semisweet or bittersweet chocolate, and must contain at least 35% chocolate liquor by weight.

Unsweetened Chocolate

Unsweetened is made up entirely of cocoa solids and cocoa butter, and the proportions of these two ingredients can vary.  However, the common theme for all unsweetened chocolate is that there is no sugar, milk, or other flavoring added.

I would include unsweetened cocoa powder under this heading, since it is simply cocoa solids with much of the cocoa butter removed.  For more information, check out this article on cocoa solids from Wikipedia.

cocoa powder
Cocoa powder may come in sweetened forms, but you can also find unsweetened cocoa powder.

Unsweetened chocolate (both bars and powder) is often used in baking cakes, cupcakes, and other pastries.  (Sugar is usually called for elsewhere in these recipes).

What Is The Highest Percentage of Cocoa in Chocolate?

The highest percentage of cocoa in chocolate is 100% for pure, unsweetened chocolate.  This chocolate has no added sugar, milk, vegetable oil, or flavoring.

Chocolate made from 100% cocoa can come in the form of cocoa powder (all cocoa butter removed) or a chocolate bar for baking (or eating if you don’t mind the strong chocolate flavor without sweeteners).

For example, you can buy a bar of Absolute Black Dark Chocolate, which is made from 100% pure unsweetened cocoa, on Amazon.

Baking Chocolate Cocoa Percentage

Most baking chocolate contains at least 50% cocoa by weight.  The rest of the bar is mostly sugar.  As mentioned earlier, if you use unsweetened cocoa powder for baking, a recipe will usually call for sweeteners.

Does All Chocolate Have Cocoa?

For a product to be called chocolate, it must contain cocoa, but there are additional restrictions on what can be called “chocolate”.

These restrictions mainly have to do with percentages of chocolate liquor (as discussed earlier) and restrictions on additional ingredients (such as oil, flavoring, and emulsifiers).

Legal Definition of Chocolate

The legal definition of chocolate, at least in the U.S., comes from the FDA (Food and Drug Administration).  There are a few things to keep in mind.

First, if any oil (fat) other than cocoa butter is added to a product, then it is considered compound chocolate, rather than “true” chocolate.  Compound chocolate will usually still contain some cocoa solids, but it may contain very little, if any, cocoa butter.

compound chocolate on doughnut
Compound chocolate is often used as a glaze for baked goods.

Compound chocolate is labeled as “chocolatey” or with some other wording to distinguish it from true chocolate.  For more information, check out my article on compound chocolate.

Also, there is white chocolate, which does not contain any cocoa solids.  For this reason, many people do not consider white chocolate to be “true” chocolate.  However, there are certain minimum percentages for the cocoa butter and milk ingredients in white chocolate (as mentioned earlier in this article).

In addition, there is milk chocolate, which is required to contain a certain minimum percentage of milkfat and milk solids (as mentioned earlier in this article).

Finally, there are minimum percentages for the chocolate liquor in both milk chocolate and dark chocolate (as mentioned earlier in this article).

Even more confusingly, these requirements can vary between different countries.

In short, a product cannot be called “true” chocolate if it:

  • Contains any added oils aside from cocoa butter (for example, compound chocolate contains vegetable oil)
  • Does not contain cocoa solids (for example, white chocolate contains no cocoa solids)
  • Does not contain enough chocolate liquor (minimum requirements for percentage by weight vary for milk and dark chocolate)

Does Cocoa Have Antioxidants?

Yes, cocoa does contain antioxidants, called flavonoids.  This means that chocolate also contains antioxidants.  Unfortunately, the more you process chocolate, the fewer antioxidants it will contain.

This is partly due to the addition of sugar and other ingredients that contain no antioxidants.  It is also due to processing, such as heating or melting cocoa beans (to produce chocolate liquor) or alkalizing (to produce Dutch process cocoa powder).

As with most foods, if you can eat cocoa in a form closer to its “natural” state, then it will be better for your health than highly processed versions.


By now, you have a much better idea of what chocolate percentage means, and how it can affect the taste and texture of chocolate.  Remember:  the chocolate percentage all boils down to how much of the product comes from ingredients derived from cacao beans.

I hope you found this article helpful – if so, please share it with someone who can use the information.

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