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Why Does Cocoa Powder Taste Bitter? (Food Facts Explained)

Why Does Cocoa Powder Taste Bitter? (Food Facts Explained)

Cocoa powder is an essential part of the baking universe and is used in many delicious chocolate-based recipes. What many people do not know is where its intense and unpleasant bitterness comes from. 

Cocoa powder contains naturally occurring organic compounds (alkaloids) and antioxidants (flavonoids). Both have an extremely bitter taste and hence explain the intense bitterness of natural cocoa powder.

Keep reading this article to learn more about the bitter origins of cocoa powder, if Dutch-processed cocoa is bitter, and how to erase the bitter taste of cocoa powder in your recipes.  

Why Is Cocoa Powder Bitter?

a little girl tasting bitter cocoa powder
Our daughter tasting pure cocoa powder (very bitter indeed)

Natural cocoa powder has a very acidic and bitter taste despite being used in numerous desserts, cakes, and drinks.

That’s because the cocoa solids of which cocoa powder is made contain flavonoids and alkaloids, which both cause bitterness. 

Additionally, the dry solids, which remain after the cocoa butter has been extracted from the cocoa beans, are extremely low in sugar and fat, further highlighting their bitter flavor (as cocoa butter has a mildly sweet taste).  

Also, the beans are roasted at the beginning of the cocoa butter extraction process, which further highlights the cocoa powder’s bitter taste. 

So bitterness due to the absence of sugar and fat and roasting the cocoa beans is pretty straightforward, right? 

But what on earth are alkaloids and flavonoids?

Alkaloids are basic organic compounds that are naturally found in cocoa beans. 

The two most powerful alkaloids in cocoa powder are theobromine and caffeine. 

Both of these compounds have a very bitter taste, which explains pure cocoa powder’s particular and somewhat unpleasant flavor.

Flavonoids, on the other hand, are highly potent antioxidants. 

They, too, have a bitter taste and are a substance that is found in cocoa beans. 

It is thanks to these flavonoids, such as catechin, epicatechin, and procyanidins, that cocoa powder is known for its many health benefits.

They are good for your heart, your brain, and your blood flow and can make you age slower. 

So yes, cocoa powder in itself is a very bitter-tasting food, but one with a ton of health benefits.

And if you balance it correctly with other ingredients, it’ll give your baked creations the most intense and delicious chocolate flavor! 

Are All Types of Cocoa Powder Bitter?

a can of Nestlé cocoa powder for baking or hot chocolate

Essentially, they are really only two types of cocoa powder. One is the natural kind, and the other is called Dutch-processed.

No matter the brand, all the natural cocoa powders will be bitter, primarily because of the naturally occurring compounds and substances mentioned above. 

That makes the myth that “only low-quality cocoa powder is bitter” pretty much obsolete, too!

The bitter components of cocoa beans and cocoa powder are just there, no matter how good or bad the process of making the powder may be. 

That’s why Dutch-processed cocoa powder was invented!

Dutch-processed cocoa powder is actually the less-bitter type of the two, and depending on how much the beans have been processed, the level of bitterness can vary greatly. 

Why Is Dutch-Processed Cocoa Powder Less Bitter?

black dutch-processed cocoa powder on a small plate
Black Dutch-processed cocoa

“Dutching” cocoa powder simply means that the cocoa beans have been washed in an alkaline solution, neutralizing their acidic compounds and increasing pH levels.  

Natural cocoa powder is relatively acidic and generally has a pH of 5.30 to 5.80

Dutch-processed cocoa powder, on the other hand, usually has three different levels of alkalization and pH:

Level of TreatmentpH
Heavy7.60 and higher

The higher the alkalization, and hence the pH level, the less bitter the cocoa powder gets!

And as dutch-processed powder also comes in various colors (red, dark brown, or black), as opposed to natural cocoa powder (light brown), it has become a popular choice for many bakers. 

But be careful when choosing your cocoa powder! Dutch powder is not only less bitter but also has a softer (read sometimes weaker) chocolate flavor.

And while it can be a good choice for some recipes, this type of cocoa powder does not fit all baked creations! 

So if you plan on making a cake or dessert with a deep and intense chocolate flavor, it can be a good idea to stick to natural cocoa.

I also dislike the fact that Dutch-processed cocoa powder contains far fewer antioxidants, making it far less healthy than natural cocoa powder.

Is Bitter Cocoa Powder Good for Baking?

Natural, bitter-tasting cocoa is used in a lot of baking recipes, and if you’re after a pure chocolate flavor, all-natural, bitter cocoa is your best pick.

Say you want to make chocolate brownies, a chocolate cake, or really intensely flavored chocolate cookies.

For recipes like these, natural cocoa powder will always beat Dutch-processed, as it will add a much more prominent chocolate flavor to your creations!

Of course, you will have to counteract the cocoa’s acidity with other ingredients to eliminate its unpleasant bitter taste!

How to Make Cocoa Powder Less Bitter?

There are many ways to get rid of the bitter taste of natural cocoa powder. If you manage to do so, you’ll get both a very healthy and chocolatey ingredient in your recipe. 

If you want to go down the easy road, you can, of course, just use Dutch-processed powder instead. I won’t blame you! 

But if you’re set on using natural cocoa, here are a few hacks to eliminate its bitterness:

  • Balance the cocoa powder with sugar
  • Add baking soda to your recipe (baking soda is a base and will naturally counteract the cocoa’s acidity)
  • Use milk in your recipes
  • Mix your cocoa powder with softened butter (the butter’s fat will restore the original state of the cocoa bean, as it replaces the extracted cocoa butter)
  • Add a pinch of salt to the cocoa powder (this works incredibly well for hot chocolate), as salt intensifies the cocoa’s chocolate flavor

RELATED ARTICLE: Why You Should Add Salt to Your Homemade Hot Chocolate Recipe!

Is Bitter Cocoa Powder Healthy?

brown natural and black dutch-processed cocoa powder on two small plates
Natural cocoa powder has many health benefits!

As mentioned above, natural, bitter-tasting cocoa powder is exceptionally healthy. The more bitter it tastes, the better it is for your health!

It’s good for your brain, heart, and blood flow. Additionally, it slows down the body’s aging process, which is quite fascinating. 

Here are a few more awesome health benefits of cocoa powder:

  1. Improves your attention and working memory
  2. Boots your immune system (as it is loaded with iron, zinc, and selenium)
  3. It can limit the negative side effects of radiation therapy in cancer patients (amazing!)
  4. It can improve your muscle and nerve function (as it also contains magnesium)
  5. It can heal wounds faster
  6. Lowers the risk of heart diseases
  7. Lowers blood pressure
  8. Improves blood flow
  9. Reduces cell damages
  10. It can help reduce inflammation
  11. It regulates your metabolism, helping you lose weight

So, by all means, buy and consume that natural, more bitter-tasting cocoa powder. It’s good for you!

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