"I only eat dark chocolate!" shouts the snob. Their friend agrees. They continue to walk as the snob goes on and on about the fine 80% Lindt bars they keep hidden from their kids. "Those rats wouldn't enjoy it anyway, but they eat everything in sight. I leave some Cadbury bars out for them. It's what they like... they're just kids after all." They return to their homes. The snob goes into the kitchen, reaches up to the highest cupboard, and pulls out a bar of Lindt 80% chocolate. They instagram their moment, and hashtags "#lifeisgood." Meanwhile, the friend goes into their bedroom, reaches into their nightstand, and pulls out a Cadbury milk chocolate bar. They eat the entire bar without even sitting down, and quickly bin the wrapper. The friend checks their phone and "likes" the snob's new instagram post, while the feeling of shame overcomes them. They return to the nightstand for one more bar.
DISSECTING THE DIALOG
This story isn't meant to shame anyone. Whether you enjoy Lindt, Cadbury, Valrhona, or the latest hipster bean to bar maker in your town, food should be enjoyed without guilt. Our food choices should elicit joy and appreciation, not shame and embarrassment. What this story is meant to do is highlight the myths surrounding chocolate percentage, and to lead us to making judgements based on INFORMED decisions, and not ignorant snobbery.
Let me just say it. Percentage has nothing to do with quality. Quality encompases many aspects including growing conditions of the cacao tree, the tree's variety and health, and how the cacao beans are processed and manufactured into chocolate (which are at least a dozen steps). All that percentage indicates is the percentage of cacao bean contained within the chocolate bar. Yes, a higher percentage bar will often contain more nutrients and less sugar, but it still doesn't equate to greater quality, and definitely doesn't mean better tasting chocolate! If you begin to make chocolate with poor quality cacao beans, even the best manufacturing processes can only do so much with it. As well, a chocolate maker who doesn't have the skill required to processes a high quality bean will end up creating chocolate that is sub par. However, percentage is important in its own regard, so lets begin to understand it and what it means for you as the consumer.
Chocolate, Cocoa Powder, & Cocoa Butter:
In order to understand percentage, you need to have some idea of how chocolate is made, but also how cocoa powder and cocoa butter is produced.
THE COCOA BEAN
First off, let's talk about the cocoa bean. A cocoa bean is roughly about 50% cocoa butter and 50% brown cocoa solids (or nonfat components). A cocoa bean, which is actually a seed, contains a great amount of fuel (in the form of fat) for the growing embryo inside the seed. This is why we can grind many seeds such as peanuts, almonds, or sesame seeds (tahini) into a rich thick paste.
Explaining how chocolate is made requires patience, time, and a cup of hot chocolate to get you through it. Ask any maker, and they will boldy school you that chocolate is so much more than just grinding up cacao beans with sugar and forming it into a chocolate bar. However, for our purpose in understanding percentage, all you need to know about making chocolate is that it's essentially just grinding up cacao beans with sugar and forming it into a chocolate bar. I'll move out of the way to avoid the flying tomatoes.
COCOA POWDER & BUTTER
There is also another use for cocoa beans, and that is to make cocoa powder and cocoa butter. Cocoa powder was invented for one reason, to make drinking chocolate more miscible (mix better) in water. As we know, a high fat ingredient, such as ground up cocoa beans, doesn't mix very well in a water based solution. In the 19th Century, when cocoa powder was invented, cocoa butter was just the byproduct of this process, and at the time, there was no use for it.
So, how are they made? These two products are produced by grinding up the cocoa beans (without sugar) into a paste (called cocoa liquor). This paste is then squeezed to allow a high amount of fat to be released, which we call cocoa butter (or the fat from a cacao seed). After this process is complete, we are left with two products: cocoa butter and a dry solid mass (consisting of the non fat parts of the cocoa bean) which now contains very little fat. This dry mass of cocoa solids is called a cocoa press cake, and resembles a big round brick made of cocoa. This "cake" is then pulverized into a powder, and we have cocoa powder. Today, the leftover cocoa butter has many uses. Today it's used to a great extent in the cosmetic industry for creams, lotions, and potions that help us feel (and maybe look) more youthful. As well, it can be used in cooking, but is also added into the process of making chocolate.
LET'S TALK NUMBERS
As I mentioned earlier, the written percentage on a chocolate bar wrapper is the percentage of cocoa bean (or its components) contained in the chocolate bar. In regards to dark chocolate, the other percentage not included is the amount of sugar. A 70% dark chocolate bar is 30% sugar.
A dark chocolate bar should contain two ingredients, cocoa bean and sugar. If there is soy lecithin in the ingredients list, it's often less than one percent and doesn't really affect the written percentage. However, sometimes another ingredient is added, extra cocoa butter.
When chocolate makers add cocoa butter:
This is where understanding the process of cocoa powder comes in. As mentioned, a chocolate maker sometimes adds extra cocoa butter to chocolate. Cocoa beans already contain 50% cocoa butter, and we use cocoa beans to make chocolate, so why add more cocoa butter? Ground up cocoa bean and sugar makes for a very thick paste. For the same reason peanut butter and almond butter manufacturers sometimes add extra peanut or almond oil into the mix, chocolate makers add extra cocoa butter to chocolate. This is because chocolate often can be so thick it becomes difficult to work with and mould into bars or enrobe confections with. The extra cocoa butter butter decreases the viscosity (increases fluidity) of the chocolate. It can also enhances the mouthfeel of the final product, making the chocolate feel more creamy when it melts. A chocolate maker doesn't have to add extra cocoa butter, but for the reasons mentioned above as well as other reasons and preferences, many do. This is why you will sometimes read on your chocolate bar label: cacao bean, sugar, and cocoa butter. That last ingredient is cocoa butter which comes from cocoa beans other than the ones being used to create that chocolate bar.
How does this affect percentage?:
Adding cocoa butter to a recipe of 70% cocoa beans and 30% sugar will increase the written percentage on the wrapper of the bar. This is because cocoa butter comes from the cocoa bean, and the percentage on the front of the bar not only reflects cocoa bean, but products produced from the bean as well, including cocoa butter. Therefore, adding more cocoa butter would increase the percentage from say 70% to 72% depending on how much was added.
Why does this matter?
It matters for a few reasons.
1) Nutrition. Many people understand that the nutrients in chocolate, minerals and polyphenols (antioxidants), are contained within the brown cocoa solids. Cocoa butter doesn't contain these nutrients. Those who have nutrition in mind, and prefer darker chocolates due to higher levels of these nutrients, will opt for higher percentage chocolate bars.
Adding extra cocoa butter raises the written percentage of the chocolate bar, without increasing the amount of nutrients. A chocolate bar at a percentage a few points higher because of cocoa butter won't have any noticeable effects on your health, and I'm not suggesting they are any less nutritious or of lower quality, but it's something to consider when making your purchase. It's not a reason to avoid such chocolate bars, and adding cocoa butter isn't wrong, but it's helpful to understand how it affects the written percentage.
2) Lecithin. Cocoa butter isn't cheap. In fact, this is why many manufactures add lecithin from soy or another plant. Lecithin at 1% can have about the same effect on chocolate as 10% cocoa butter does on decreasing chocolate viscosity. Soy lecithin and other vegetable fats are often much cheaper than cocoa butter as well. For these reasons, some manufacturers add lecithin to their chocolate. There is a great debate on lecithin in chocolate, but we'll save that for another time.
3) The purists. Another reason extra cocoa butter matters is the fact that some feel it rids of chocolate of its integrity. Chocolate makers in the fine/artisan/craft chocolate will market and boast the variety of cocoa bean used, where it comes from, and even the traceability of it (knowing the exact location or farms it was grown). These marketing points also greatly alter the consumer's purchasing decisions. Some have issue with this, because when a chocolate maker adds extra cocoa butter, in almost all cases, that cocoa butter doesn't come from the same beans being used to make the chocolate. That cocoa butter is purchased from an outside source. Sometimes that source can be large commercial cocoa butter producer, sometimes it can be organic, sometimes not... but the bottom line is that it's not from the beans that are being showcased in the chocolate bar.
This is why some chocolate makers and consumers may feel it defeats the purpose or devalues the chocolate. Boasting your cacao beans are of a particular origin or quality, the blending it with cocoa butter from beans which are not, doesn't sit well with some makers and consumers. Even if the cocoa butter is fair trade, and organic, and of high quality, some may still feel it adulterates the chocolate. These reasons are why some makers don't want to add extra cocoa butter, and can do a fine job without out. Again, it's not to insist adding extra cocoa butter is somehow wrong, but it's interesting to understand why or why not makers decided to add extra cocoa butter, and why some consumers may not want to see that in the list of ingredients.
What to take away from this
Understand that percentage is only a reflection of the percent of cocoa beans in a dark chocolate bar. It does not affect quality, unless for you quality is based solely on nutrition. If that's the case, then yes, higher percentage would mean a greater amount of minerals and antioxidants. However, nutrition isn't the only basis for determining quality. Flavour, which is often overlooked for some strange reason, as well as the many steps taken to process the chocolate, the quality of the ingredients used including the sugar, all factor in on quality.
Percentage is letting you know the level of sweetness to expect from your chocolate. It's letting you know, usually, how much of your chocolate consists of cocoa bean. Somewhere along the way, it became associated with quality. Likely due to the media portraying the health benefits of dark chocolate, but it also got tied into some sort of prestige. It's not a GPA of chocolate. A greater percentage doesn't somehow mean that chocolate scored higher on it's entrance exam into the supermarket. It's important, but it's not the whole story.
Next time you want to enjoy your chocolate for purely hedonic reasons, cover up that percentage and enjoy it for its flavour instead. See where that takes you.