What does “70% chocolate” really mean? The answer may surprise you.

Raw cacao seeds and ground cocoa nibs

You know that 70% dark chocolate bar you bought recently? Did some teeny part of you feel pretty good about buying really dark chocolate because, well, dark chocolate is good for us now?

Would you be surprised to learn that there might be MORE good-for-you stuff in a 60% chocolate bar, or even a (gasp) milk chocolate bar, than in the 70% bar you picked up?

I know I was.

Here’s the issue: the cocoa % on chocolate bar wrappers doesn’t actually tell us how much chocolate is in our chocolate (if by chocolate we mean ground-up cocoa beans — the brown stuff with all the antioxidants). In fact, cocoa % is totally useless for that purpose. All we can reasonably expect to learn from the cocoa % is how much SUGAR has been added to our chocolate — and even that is only true for dark chocolate.

Confused yet? Let me try to explain.

What cocoa percentages really mean

First, the basics.

The average chocolate bar has five ingredients:

  • Chocolate liquor: ground-up whole cocoa beans. Contains both parts of the bean: the fat (cocoa butter) and the solids (unrefined cocoa powder)
  • Cocoa butter: extra cocoa butter increases creaminess and fluidity
  • Sugar: because, sugar
  • Lecithin: usually from soy beans, lecithin increases fluidity
  • Vanilla: while old style European chocolate traditionally includes vanilla, there has been a notable movement away from vanilla by today’s chocolate makers

Cocoa % = chocolate liquor + added cocoa butter

Total cocoa percentages include not just chocolate liquor, but also added cocoa butter. The amount of each ingredient need not be disclosed by the chocolate maker, and the ratio between the two ingredients can vary wildly. Dark couverture chocolate, which needs to be highly fluid if chocolatiers are to work with it, often has a nearly 1:1 ratio of cocoa liquor to cocoa butter. Eating and baking chocolates don’t need as much cocoa butter, so their ratio may be closer to 2:1.

Here’s where the confusion around cocoa % becomes an issue for consumers. Say you’re choosing between two chocolate bars with the exact same ingredients, listed in the same order. You’re frustrated because the ingredient percentages aren’t listed on the packaging. But as an experiment, let’s pretend for a moment that they are.

Here’s what you’d see:

Bar #1: 70% dark chocolate 


  • chocolate liquor (66%)
  • sugar (29%)
  • cocoa butter (4%)
  • soy lecithin (<1%)
  • vanilla (<1%)

Bar #2: 70% dark chocolate


  • chocolate liquor (41%)
  • sugar (29%)
  • cocoa butter (29%)
  • soy lecithin (<1%)
  • vanilla (<1%)

In both cases, the % chocolate liquor and the % cocoa butter add up to 70%. Both bars have the same amount of added sugar. However, the first bar contains 66% actual ground up cocoa beans, whereas the second bar contains only 41%. That’s a 25% difference. And as a consumer, you have no way of knowing which is which.

As if that’s not confusing enough, consider the ingredients list for this milk chocolate bar:

Bar #3: 60% milk chocolate


  • chocolate liquor (42%)
  • sugar (25%)
  • cocoa butter (18%)
  • milk powder (14%)
  • soy lecithin (<1%)
  • vanilla (<1%)

That’s right — you could buy a dark milk chocolate bar and get MORE ground cocoa beans by weight than you would’ve if you’d bought the #2 dark chocolate bar above. So if you’ve been buying dark chocolate for health reasons, these numbers may give you pause.

The only way to really know exactly how much chocolate liquor is in your chocolate bar (besides calling the chocolate maker and asking) is by buying chocolate with no added cocoa butter. It does exist — chocolate makers sometimes call it “two-ingredient chocolate,” since this type of chocolate typically also excludes lecithin and vanilla. I like Undone Chocolate‘s two-ingredient bars, although admittedly I’m biased because I’ve spent a lot of time helping out in their shop. But many other chocolate makers make two-ingredient chocolate — Taza, Dandelion, Rogue and Sirene all do, just to name a few. I recently tried a great one — an 82% two-ingredient bar made with Peruvian beans by Maverick Chocolate, from Cincinnati, Ohio. You can find other two-ingredient brands at most good chocolate stores, or check out the selection at Chocosphere.

But here’s a longer term solution to the cocoa percentage problem: chocolate makers should provide consumers with the percentage of chocolate liquor or cocoa solids in their bars, not just the meaningless cocoa %. Giving consumers a breakout of exactly how much of a bar is made from whole cocoa beans and how much is added cocoa butter (which, btw, most chocolate makers buy in bulk from industrial manufacturers, although there are exceptions) would be a more honest, transparent way to market chocolate. It would also discourage chocolate makers from adding extra cocoa butter for the sole purpose of inflating their chocolate’s cocoa percentage.

Another perk: providing information about the percentage of chocolate liquor in chocolate might even boost sales of dark milk chocolate, which is poised to be the next big thing in high end chocolate. But I’ll save that for another post.


Couverture chocolate (and why chocolatiers aren’t rocket scientists)

Chef Rubber 64% dark chocolate chips

Chef Rubber 64% dark couverture chocolate

Are you confused by couverture chocolate? You aren’t alone. I hadn’t even heard of it before I began my confectionery training. But never fear — here’s the quick and dirty on couverture chocolate for your reading pleasure.

Couverture is a type of chocolate made specifically for confectionery use. Its defining characteristic is its higher cocoa butter content (32-39% ADDED cocoa butter, on top of the cocoa butter already present in the cocoa mass). The extra cocoa butter makes couverture thinner when melted, so professionals can achieve super-thin, super-shiny bonbon shells for their confections. It also gives couverture a really smooth texture and mellow flavor — in no small part because the cocoa butter significantly dilutes the flavorful (but less creamy) cocoa bean mass.

Chocolatiers refer to the more liquid quality and easy pourability of melted couverture in terms of its viscosity — specifically, they categorize couverture as “high viscosity” chocolate. When I first started working with chocolate this confused me to no end, because in physics, the higher the viscosity, the THICKER the liquid. For some reason (maybe they were high on theobromine), chocolatiers decided to reverse that — they call chocolate that is thin and runny “high viscosity.” Clearly someone wasn’t paying attention in high school physics class!

It would be remiss of me to talk about couverture chocolate without noting that, well… it’s delicious. Especially if you like that smooth, European, vanilla-forward chocolate style. But who likes that, right? 😉

You may be wondering if you’ve ever tasted couverture, or if you would even recognize it if you saw it on a shelf, and my guess is that you would. Valrhona and Callebaut are two of the most well known couverture makers — you’ve probably heard of them. Michael Cluizel, Amedei and many others make excellent couverture too.

If you’re interested in a couverture starter kit, I recommend ordering it on Chocosphere, which has a great selection of bars and sampler packs (I love this one). Try the Valrhona classics like Manjari and Guanaja. Jivara is a great couverture milk chocolate (also by Valrhona), if that’s what you’re looking for.

If you do try any of these, please let me know what you think of them.

Five myths about chocolate

Fruit of the Cacao Tree

There is so much misinformation out there about chocolate. This post tackles some of the most common misconceptions.

1) Myth: chocolate contains caffeine

There is absolutely no caffeine in chocolate. What chocolate does contain is theobromine, a mild nervous system stimulant that is chemically distinct from caffeine and affects the human nervous system in subtly different ways. Weird ways, too (anyone need a cough suppressant?)

It’s also thought to be less addictive than caffeine (although from personal experience I’m not so sure I believe that).

2) Myth: cocoa comes from a bean

How many times in my life have I wondered what exactly is chocolate. A nut? A bean? A fruit? Even when I’ve looked it up online, it was far from easy to figure this out.

So, here’s the answer: chocolate is a seed. Or more precisely, chocolate is made from the kernels of seeds found inside the fruit of the cacao tree.

Fresh Cacao Seeds and Pulp
A fresh cacao fruit contains 30-50 seeds surrounded by white pulp

3) Myth: cacao and cocoa are the same thing

Not exactly. The seeds of the cacao tree’s fruit are referred to as cacao (ka·cow) until they’re fermented, after which point they are called cocoa. The product we buy and eat in its solid, powder and nib form is ALWAYS cocoa. We don’t eat unfermented cacao beans. Ever.

Which brings me to….

4) Myth: it’s possible to make raw chocolate

Almost all cocoa products that market themselves as raw are actually not. That includes those products that call themselves “raw cacao.”

How do I know this? Cocoa seeds are fermented, and fermentation temperatures can run as high as 130 degrees Fahrenheit — well above the 104-118 degree maximum temperature of a raw food product. With very few exceptions*, manufacturers claiming to sell raw cocoa products are selling you a product made from beans that were heated above 118 degrees before ever leaving the farm. I would be VERY skeptical of any cocoa product marketed as raw.

Cocoa beans drying in the sun
Cocoa beans drying in the sun

That said, it’s possible to make chocolate from fermented, unroasted cocoa beans or beans roasted at extremely low temperatures. Raaka Chocolate has been successfully doing it for years. In fact, it’s likely that most raw chocolate companies are actually selling bars made from unroasted beans, not raw beans.

If you buy cocoa products made from unroasted beans, be aware that cacao is fermented in very unsanitary conditions, and cocoa shells are often contaminated with salmonella or worse. Roasting the beans before removing the nibs (kernels) is the most effective way to ensure the final product is safe for consumers. While Raaka may have found other ways to sterilize nibs, I wouldn’t trust an unknown or online manufacturer to be as careful.

5) Myth: roasting cocoa beans reduces their antioxidant properties

Cocoa powder, chocolate and roasted cocoa beans
Clockwise from the left: cocoa powder, chocolate and roasted cocoa beans

Also untrue. While roasting cocoa beans may change their antioxidant profile — increasing some antioxidants and reducing others — it does not necessarily reduce their total antioxidant load, especially when care is taken to roast the beans at relatively low temperatures, as most small-batch chocolate makers do.

Regardless of the health benefits, roasting cocoa beans vastly improves their taste, giving them that distinct chocolatey flavor we’ve come to expect. Think about how different raw walnuts taste from toasted walnuts, for example, and you’ll have some sense of how roasting cocoa beans might alter and enhance their flavor.

*Big Tree Farms in Bali makes cold-pressed cocoa butter from cocoa beans that are fermented and roasted at temperatures no higher than 115 degrees Fahrenheit, according to its website.