A chocolate’s cacao percentage tells how much of that chocolate is made up of cacao (both cacao solids and cacao fat). But just because a particular chocolate contains a higher percentage of cacao, doesn’t mean that it’s automatically healthier. Most of the healthy properties in chocolate are from cacao’s antioxidant- and nutrient-rich chemical profile. The factors contributing to the nutrition of a chocolate include: farm location and post-harvest processing, careful treatment during chocolate making, and added ingredients. Not all cacao is created equal, and it shouldn’t be treated as such.
Chocolate making starts on the cacao farm, where trees must be planted in nutrient-rich soil and cared-for such that they grow pods. Some regions of the world grow more naturally antioxidant-rich varietals of cacao, while some naturally have more fertile soil. Sometimes creating the ideal environment for cacao growth requires the use of fertilizers and pesticides, which aren’t accessible for all farmers. The cacao must also be properly fermented, dried and roasted so that they develop the precursors needed to make a rich chocolaty flavor.
Research shows that raw fermented cacao is actually more antioxidant-rich compared to roasted cacao but this difference is negligible at low roast profiles. Polyphenols, the most concentrated antioxidant found in cacao, are quite bitter. It’s believed they evolved within cacao so that the animals eating the sweet pulp surrounding the seeds would spit them out and allow them to sprout.
Once cacao arrives at a chocolate factory, makers roast the cacao, bringing out more chocolaty flavor, but potentially killing antioxidants. More lightly roasted, well-processed cacao will preserve more of the antioxidants and bring out a palette of complex flavors. Similar to coffee, darker roasted cacao beans will have a stronger chocolaty flavor and bitterness, due to some burning of the beans. Sometimes this is an indication of low-quality cacao, heavily roasted to cover up flavor defects. No matter how high the percentage of cacao, if it’s over-roasted low quality cacao, the final chocolate will not taste good nor confer health benefits.
Not all cacao is created equal, and nor are sweeteners, artificial flavorings and inclusions. The proteins in whole milk powder bind to cacao’s antioxidants, so even a high percentage milk chocolate isn’t as healthy as dark chocolate, unless it is an alternative milk chocolate, such as coconut. If chocolate is made with white sugar, it still contains empty calories. A chocolate made with 85% highly-roasted, low quality cacao plus 15% white sugar is not as good for you as a 70% chocolate made with low-roasted, high quality cacao and coconut sugar.
Alternative sugars, while still calorie-dense, can contain small amounts of essential vitamins and minerals which make them healthier than white sugar. Alternative sweeteners such as xylitol or stevia make objectively healthier chocolate than one made with white sugar.
Artificial flavorings are another way of covering up the taste of bad cacao; sometimes vanilla is used in this manner. Other ingredients, like spices, nuts, and emulsifiers, have their own properties which contribute to chocolate’s health properties, regardless of cacao percentage.