Dede Wilson

co-founder of

How To Read a Chocolate Label


Chocolate is made from cacao, which naturally contains cocoa butter, but what else is found in the typical bar of chocolate? Here are the ingredients from five labels, all of them labeled as semisweet, bittersweet or dark chocolate:

Bar #1: Sugar, Chocolate, Cocoa Butter, Cocoa Processed with Alkali, Milk Fat, Lactose, Soy Lecithin, PGPR, Vanillin, Artificial Flavor and Milk.

Bar #2: Cacao beans, Sugar, Cocoa butter, non-GMO Soy lecithin, and Whole vanilla beans

Bar #3: Cocoa beans, Sugar, Cocoa butter, Emulsifier: Soya lecithin, Natural vanilla extract

Bar #4: Cocoa beans, Organic cane juice, Cocoa butter

Bar #5: Cocoa mass, Cane sugar

To read a label, one must understand that the ingredients will be listed in descending order of greatest percentage: the first ingredient is the largest amount within the item. Unless the company shares specific percentages, we will not know how much of each item is within the product. The percentage we often see represented nowadays on a chocolate label refers to the actual cacao mass from the cacao beans and will be expressed as “60% cacao” or “55% cacao mass”, or some similar term might be used. Occasionally the manufacturer will share the percentage of cocoa butter as well, but typically, no numbers beyond those will be shared. If they were, we would have the whole “recipe” for the chocolate, and that is proprietary.

In our first example, Sugar is the first ingredient; in the others, actual cacao beans (or cocoa beans as some companies state it) are the largest ingredient. Most connoisseurs look for cacao beans to be the first ingredient.

Cocoa processed with alkali might sound like a scary science experiment, but it is simply the same process used to produce Dutch-processed cocoa. It is a readily accepted process, by the industry and chocolate lovers alike, and just refers to the fact that the acidity in the chocolate has been changed.

The next thing you might notice is the Milk Fat and the lactose. What is milk fat doing in your dark chocolate? According to the FDA, this is allowable. Many dark chocolate lovers, however, would find this ingredient unnecessary as well as unwelcomed. Milk fat can damper the flavors of finer dark chocolates. Lactose is a sugar derived from milk (in fact it is sometimes referred to as milk sugar). Those that are lactose intolerant should steer clear of these products.

Soy lecithin, sometimes called soya lecithin or simply just lecithin, is an emulsifier that helps bring together the smooth texture of the chocolate bar. It is often present in 1% or less than the total amount of ingredients. Non-GMO refers to the fact that the product contains lecithin from non-genetically modified soybeans. Lecithin is a very common ingredient, even in high-end chocolate.

PGPR is an ingredient you might not have noticed before. (See Bakepedia for entry on PGPR). The letters stand for polyglycerol polyricinoleate. It is an emulsifier that allows chocolate to be made with less fat, while still retaining the desired viscosity. Cocoa butter can be expensive, so PGPR is often used to make chocolate in a more cost effective way. Most chocolate aficionados find its inclusion offensive and look at it as an unnecessary additive.

Vanilla can be found in various chocolate bars in different forms: the whole bean, extract or as an artificial flavoring.

Our last two bars are examples of where some smaller, artisanal chocolate producers are leaning with regards to chocolate formulations. With the increased interest in the purity of our foods, these companies have made chocolate without lecithin (or any other emulsifier) or any flavoring such as vanilla. Bar #4 has just three ingredients: the cacao, additional cocoa butter and their choice of sugar happens to be organic cane derived juice. The last bar is an example of minimalist simplicity containing only cacao and sugar. No added cocoa butter, emulsifier or additional flavors such as vanilla to get in the way. This is a purist’s approach to appreciating what those particular beans have to offer.

Most tasters will discern differences among these bars, in flavor and texture. A preferred one might emerge, and be different from the bar chosen by me or by your friend tasting alongside. When it comes to chocolate I always say there is no right and wrong; there are chocolates that appeal to just about every palate. I do, however, believe that if you love chocolate, you should at least acquaint yourself with chocolates that are made with attention to detail. To become familiar with chocolate bars made from different beans, to chocolates grown in different areas of the world, processed in varied ways and made with various other ingredients. By doing this you will educate your palate to the breadth of what is out there and truly be able to discern what pleases you the most.