We enjoy indulging in chocolate not only because it tastes good but also because it’s good for us. Dark chocolate is well known for its abundant health benefits. When you buy a bar of chocolate, you’ll see a cacao percentage listed on the label. But what does that percentage mean? And what percentage of cacao is healthy for you?
If you’re confused by what the cacao percentage means, you’re not alone. The percentage listed on the bar is to help you figure out how much chocolate is really in the bar (as opposed to sugar and other fillers) so that you can make informed choices that fit your dietary needs.
If you want to know how to select the healthiest dark chocolate, keep reading to learn more.
What Does Higher Cocoa Percentage Mean?
Cocoa and cacao can mean different things, but when it comes to the word listed on the chocolate bar label, the terms are used interchangeably. When you shop for chocolate bars, you will find cocoa percentages ranging from 35 percent all the way to 100 percent. What percent of cacao is dark chocolate? Dark chocolate bars, especially, come in a range of cocoa percentages—anywhere from 50 percent to 100 percent.
The cacao percentage on the label tells you the ratio of cacao beans to sugar and other ingredients. It indicates how much of the bar, by weight, is made from cacao beans, including cocoa mass or cocoa liquor, cocoa nibs and cocoa butter. A higher cocoa percentage means that the chocolate bar has more cocoa mass (or solids) and less room for fillers. These fillers include things like sugar, dairy, soy lecithin, vegetable oil and vanilla. A chocolate bar with 75 percent cacao means the chocolate bar is made up of three-quarters cocoa solids and one-quarter sugar and other ingredients.
The percentage listed on the chocolate label is also an indicator of how bitter the chocolate will be. Fifty percent dark chocolate has more sugar and therefore will be sweeter than 85 percent chocolate. The sweetness of chocolate bars can come from more than just sugar—things like fruits, nuts, artificial sweeteners or even honey can be used to sweeten chocolate. High cocoa chocolate has a more intense chocolate flavor along with more antioxidants and health benefits.
Just because a chocolate bar has a higher cocoa percentage doesn’t necessarily ensure a higher quality experience. Not all cocoa beans are created equal. The terroir—the climate, the quality of the soil, and the amount of sunshine versus rain—where the cacao beans are grown plays a crucial role in the flavor profile of cacao beans. And some brands are better than others based on manufacturing processes and ingredients. In general, the fewer ingredients you don’t know combined with high-quality ingredients you do recognize means a healthier chocolate product. Basically, if you can’t pronounce the ingredient or don’t know what it is, the chocolate isn’t as good for you.
Along with dark chocolate’s cacao percentages, you can find a range of cacao percentages that represent unsweetened, bittersweet, semisweet and milk chocolate. Unsweetened chocolate, or 100 percent, is best for baking due to its bitter flavor. Bittersweet chocolate has anywhere from 35 percent cacao to 70 percent, depending on the manufacturer. Semisweet chocolate also has at least 35 percent cacao, but most semisweet chocolate contains around 55 percent cocoa. The threshold of cacao for milk chocolate is much lower—a minimum of 10 percent cacao and 12 percent milk solids is all that’s required for milk chocolate. And because of the added milk, milk chocolate products have a sweeter, milder flavor and creamier texture.
Is More Cacao Better for You?
What percentage of cacao is good for you? The simple answer is that the higher the percentage of cocoa mass, the better the chocolate is for you. That’s because there’s less room for sugar and fillers.
You’ll want to choose chocolate with high-quality ingredients to get the most health benefits, and high cacao dark chocolate fits the bill. You’ll find more health benefits in high-percentage dark chocolate due to cacao’s antioxidant and nutrient-rich chemical profile. Cacao beans are an excellent source of essential vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and anti-inflammatory agents.
Many of these health benefits are found in cacao’s flavonoids, a type of antioxidant that protects brain and heart health, improves memory, and boosts mood. Flavanols are a class of flavonoid found in many fruits and vegetables, including cacao beans. Other naturally occurring chemicals in chocolate include theobromine, a stimulant that has substantial anti-inflammatory effects and protects the cardiovascular system, and phenylethylamine (PEA), which helps elevate mood and increase energy levels.
Other factors that contribute to the nutrition of chocolate include the following:
- Terroir (or environment). Cacao beans grow in pods on the Theobroma tree in tropical climates. These trees must be planted in nutrient-rich, fertile soil and cared for carefully until the pods are ripe for harvesting.
- Post-harvest processing. Chocolate makers roast the cacao beans to use them in the chocolate making process. The treatment of the cacao beans during the chocolate making process matters when it comes to retaining the nutrients and health benefits of chocolate. If cacao beans are highly roasted, this will kill many of the antioxidants. However, lightly roasting cacao beans will preserve the antioxidants and bring out their complex flavor profile.
- Any added ingredients or fillers. Added ingredients not only affect the flavor of chocolate but also the health benefits. To make milk chocolate, milk or milk powder is added. Milk powder contains proteins that bind to cacao’s antioxidants and reduce the effects of the health benefits.
Chocolate bars with a high percentage of cacao are also lower in carbs because they contain less sugar. For those following a keto or paleo diet, high-percentage chocolate bars can help satisfy any chocolate craving.
Dark Chocolate and Health
What percentage of cacao is healthy? The more cacao that’s in a chocolate bar—and the higher the percentage—the more health benefits you’ll find. When you choose dark chocolate high in cocoa and low in sugar, you can reap the health benefits without negative side effects like weight gain.
Raw chocolate offers the most health benefits of all types of chocolate because it is made from cacao beans that have not been roasted, and it has little to no added sugar. Dark chocolate is second best and contains up to two to three times more flavanol-rich cocoa solids than milk chocolate. White chocolate and milk chocolate contain calcium, but both of these types of chocolate have substantially more sugar than raw or dark chocolate.
Dark chocolate is rich in disease-fighting antioxidants and has ten times more antioxidant properties than blueberries. It also contains heart-healthy monounsaturated fat, protein and fiber and is rich in minerals such as iron, copper, zinc, manganese, potassium and calcium and vitamins B1, B2, B3, B5, B9 and E. Cacao is higher in magnesium than any other plant. Magnesium helps regulate the digestive, neurological and cardiovascular systems, helps with relaxation and heals the muscles throughout the entire body.
Eating chocolate with a high percentage of cacao can improve the capillary growth in muscles and increase energy levels. The health properties of dark chocolate can also help protect against damage from free radicals that weaken cells and can lead to Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s, clogged arteries, cancer and autoimmune disorders.
A major benefit of eating dark chocolate comes from the antioxidants and polyphenols that have been shown to improve heart health and blood flow. Increased blood flow can also improve brain function. Flavonoids reduce cell damage from heart disease and help lower blood pressure, lower LDL “bad” cholesterol levels, increase HDL “good” cholesterol levels and increase vascular function, which are all factors in improved heart health.
Dark chocolate’s anti-inflammatory properties improve the body’s sensitivity to insulin and reduce the risk of diabetes. Polyphenols activate changes in blood sugar levels, and flavonoids reduce oxidative stress. When this happens, glucose, or blood sugar, gets into your cells more easily to decrease blood sugar levels.
When you eat dark chocolate with a high percentage of cocoa, you can see the benefits within 30 minutes—it works that quickly.
At Cococlectic, we promote the health benefits of dark chocolate by featuring craft chocolate makers who produce chocolate bars with a high-percentage of cacao. Each month, we feature a different American small-batch bean-to-bar chocolate maker who is passionate about producing their chocolate from scratch using only three main ingredients: cacao beans, sugar and cocoa butter.
The chocolates sold at Cococlectic are vegan, non-GMO, fair trade and ethically sourced. They do not contain any soy, gluten, dairy or nut, but they may be produced in a facility that handles these ingredients.
We sell only dark chocolate bars in our chocolate shop. Monthly subscription boxes, one-time gift boxes or corporate gift boxes containing your choice of dark bars only or mixed bars with inclusions of fruits and nuts are available with the purchase of the Office Box. Each chocolate box comes with 4 full-size dark chocolate bars that are made in the US.
Sign up for our chocolate-of-the-month subscription club and join us for a free virtual chocolate tasting with our featured chocolate maker of the month.