Just a few years ago, it seemed like chocolate was chocolate, and while some were better than others, they were all labeled the same. Seemingly overnight, numbers started to appear on chocolate packaging and we suddenly had a way to separate one chocolate easily from another. What does the “percent cacao” or “cacao content” on chocolate packaging refer to? The “percent cacao” refers to the percentage of cocoa solids in a product. Cocoa solids are all of the ingredients from a cocoa bean, including cocoa powder, cocoa butter, chocolate liquor and even ground cacao nib. Products with a higher cacao percentage have more cocoa solids nonfat (the term for non-cocoa butter cocoa products) and more cocoa butter in them. Higher percentages mean that the chocolate will be darker and more strongly flavored, as there is less room for sugar and other flavorings in the product. Since the ratio of cocoa solids nonfat and cocoa butter can vary widely, even products with the same percentage can taste and feel very different on the tongue.
A higher cacao percentage does not necessarily mean a higher quality chocolate or a better flavor/texture. It can and does mean that that chocolate is made with more expensive ingredients than lower cacao content chocolate because cocoa beans are more expensive than sugar and milk (other common ingredients in chocolate). The overall quality is influenced both by the cacao percentage and by the other ingredients in that chocolate (fewer ingredients is usually better) and better flavor is all about your personal preferences and palate.