The cacao percentage or cocoa percentage on a chocolate bar tells you what percent of that chocolate bar’s weight was contributed by cacao beans.
Let’s break this down.
Cacao beans, the seeds from which chocolate is made, are roughly half fat (called cocoa butter or cacao butter) and half cocoa solids by weight. These fats and solids contribute different aspects to our chocolate experience. The fat carries the aroma and smooth texture we associate with chocolate, while the solids carry the flavor and minerals & antioxidants which have given cacao its superfood reputation.
Cocoa butter is great for the skin, so some chocolate manufacturers press out the cocoa butter and sell it to cosmetics companies at a high price. This leaves them with low-fat cacao solids to either grind up into cocoa powder or combine with different fat sources. When eating cheap chocolate, we are often consuming cacao only in a highly processed form, with much of the rich delicious fat pressed out and replaced with cheaper oils. While knowing what cacao percentage means is important, it’s also important to closely examine a chocolate bar’s ingredients.
White chocolate only contains cacao butter, not cacao solids. So the percentage of cacao in white chocolate represents how much of that chocolate bar is made up of cacao butter, the fat of the cacao bean. This is important because cocoa butter is the only part of white chocolate contributing a real chocolaty flavor to the bar. With less cocoa butter there’s going to be more of something else, either milk powder or sugar or some cheaper vegetable fat.
Milk chocolate is made with both cacao beans and additional cocoa butter. The cacao percent on a milk chocolate bar tells you how much of that chocolate is made up of both cacao beans and added cocoa butter. This extra fat is necessary because milk chocolate also contains milk powder, requiring a higher ratio of cacao fat in order to balance out the liquid to solid ratio.
Remember that cacao beans are already half fat, so the extra cocoa butter is just enough to even out the milk powder. With milk chocolate of a low cacao percentage, remember to look on the ingredients’ list for cheaper vegetable oils filling the role of that cocoa butter. The higher the cacao percentage in a milk chocolate, the less milk powder is used and therefore the less extra cocoa butter is needed (and the more chocolaty flavor it will have).