Cocoa Butter Is The Versatile Elixir of Chocolate

cocoa, cocoa butter
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Cocoa butter, a natural fat derived from cocoa beans, holds a special place not only in the world of chocolate but also in various industries ranging from cosmetics to pharmaceuticals. Renowned for its unique properties, cocoa butter has been cherished for centuries, originating from the cacao tree, Theobroma cacao, native to the tropical regions of Central and South America.

Cocoa butter (CB) is a pale yellow, edible vegetable fat extracted from the cocoa bean. With its rich history, diverse applications, and remarkable benefits, cocoa butter remains a staple ingredient in numerous products worldwide. It is the main fat in chocolate and responsible for many of its physical and sensory properties. Its presence is also the reason we have to temper chocolate.

The main issue facing suppliers of cocoa butter is that demand continually outstrips supply (Mohamed, 2015). The amount of this butter in a cocoa bean is extremely low anyway but climate change particularly in the main growing areas of central America, West Africa and southeast Asia are changing at such a pace it is affecting the supply of chocolate generally.

In the European Union, the directive ( states that it has the following characteristics of having a free fatty acid content which is expressed as oleic acid of not more than 1.75% w/w and secondly unsaponifiable matter which is determined using petroleum ether extraction of not more than 0.5% except in the case of press cocoa butter, which cannot be more than 0.35%.

Historical Origins and Cultural Significance

The story of cocoa butter intertwines with the rich tapestry of human history, dating back to ancient Mesoamerican civilizations like the Mayans and Aztecs. Revered as a sacred crop, cocoa held spiritual significance and was often used in rituals and ceremonies. The extraction of cocoa butter was a meticulous process, involving fermenting, drying, and roasting cocoa beans, followed by pressing to yield the precious butter.


Prime-pressed cocoa butter is the fat obtained from high quality cocoa nibs which are commercially free from the shell. It is extracted using mechanical or hydraulic pressing. There is no further refining except for filtration.

An Expellar-Pressed cocoa butter is extracted using extrusion, a screw press or expellar so the conditions for extraction vary slightly with each method. The nib is steamed to help with extraction. From a chemical composition perspective, the cocoa butter extracted has the same chemical composition as the prime-pressed form. However, the aroma and flavour is different from the prime-pressed form. Expellar pressing is invariably used to extract fat from poor quality beans. Such fat has to be refined further.

From a product development viewpoint, CB has a melting point at 34.1°C which is just below 37°C and so melts when it is placed in the mouth. It is understandable how most chocolate remains solid at normal room temperature when between 20 and 30°C but then melts when required.

The ingredient has been exceptionally reviewed by Garti & Widlak (2015).

Physical Properties and Chemical Composition

At room temperature, cocoa butter is solid and brittle, melting around body temperature, which contributes to its unique mouthfeel and texture. Chemically, it primarily consists of triglycerides, with oleic, stearic, and palmitic acids being the dominant fatty acids. This composition gives cocoa butter its characteristic smoothness, stability, and resistance to oxidation, making it an ideal ingredient in various formulations.

More On Those Fats in Cocoa Butter

Cocoa butter is renowned for its unique composition of fats, which contribute to its distinctive properties and wide-ranging applications. Comprising primarily of triglycerides, cocoa butter consists of a complex blend of saturated and unsaturated fatty acids, each playing a crucial role in determining its physical characteristics, stability, and nutritional profile.

Dominant Fatty Acids

The three primary fatty acids found in cocoa butter are:-

  1. Stearic Acid: Stearic acid is a saturated fatty acid that constitutes the largest proportion of cocoa butter, typically ranging from 30% to 35%. It is a long-chain fatty acid known for its solidifying effect on fats, contributing to the firm texture of cocoa butter at room temperature. Despite being a saturated fat, stearic acid does not raise cholesterol levels to the same extent as other saturated fats, making it a neutral or even beneficial component in the diet.
  2. Oleic Acid: Oleic acid is a monounsaturated fatty acid that makes up approximately 35% to 45% of cocoa butter. It is prized for its fluidity and stability, imparting a smooth, melt-in-the-mouth sensation to chocolate products. Oleic acid is also associated with numerous health benefits, including improved heart health and reduced inflammation.
  3. Palmitic Acid: Palmitic acid is another saturated fatty acid present in cocoa butter, accounting for around 25% to 30% of its composition. While palmitic acid has been linked to adverse effects on cholesterol levels when consumed in excess, its presence in cocoa butter contributes to the desirable texture and mouthfeel of chocolate confections.

Fat Composition (all percentage values are w/w)

Saturated fats

Total saturated: 57–64%

  • stearic acid (24–37%), palmitic acid (24–30%), myristic acid, (0–4%), arachidic acid (1%) (also known as eicosanoic acid), lauric acid (0–1%).

Total unsaturated fats: 36–43%

Monounsaturated: 29–43%:

  • oleic acid (29–38%), palmitoleic acid (0–2%)

Polyunsaturated: 0–5%:

  • linoleic acid (0–4%), α-Linolenic acid (0–1%)

Polymorphic Crystalline Structure

One of the most remarkable features of cocoa butter is its ability to form polymorphic crystalline structures, which significantly influence the physical properties and sensory attributes of chocolate products. Cocoa butter can exist in several different crystal forms, each characterized by distinct arrangements of fat molecules.

Polymorphism results from the different possibilities of lateral packing of the fatty acid chains and of the longitudinal stacking of molecules in lamellae (Chapman, 1965). By 1966, six crystalline states had been identified by application of x-ray diffraction analysis (Wille & Lutton, 1966). These are described as I through to VI in order of increasing melting point. The states, II, IV, V and VI are pure. These are generally identified with polymorphs of 2-oleoylpalmitoyl stearin (POS). The normal state of cocoa butter in chocolate is type V and the type that is sought after through tempering.

The six main crystal forms in CB are:

Type I – melts at 17C or 63F

Type II – melts at 23ºC or 74ºF

Type III – melts at 25.5ºC or 78ºF

Type IV – melts at 27ºC or 81ºF

Type V – melts at 34ºC or 93ºF

Type VI – melts at 36ºC or 98ºF  .

Of course the fats are continually being examined and differential scanning calorimetry has been employed (Loisel et al., 1998). The various forms have been revised in recent years so its likely this section will be revised depending on current thought and understanding on this science.

The polymorphic transitions between these crystal forms during the chocolate manufacturing process, such as tempering, are critical for achieving the desired texture, snap, and glossiness in the final product.

Whilst tempering has been discussed more fully elsewhere it is worth stating that the crystal structure  type V is the form needed for chocolate production. Tempering generates this form above all others. The starting point is to heat chocolate to a point where no fat crystals occur which is around 45ºC (113ºF) for dark chocolate and 40ºC or 104ºF for milk and white chocolate. The lower temperature for these latter types is because of the presence of milk solids. These chocolate mixes are also easier to ruin through splitting and burning if higher temperatures for tempering are employed.

The other key point is to mix thoroughly to ensure even temperature distribution and allow for crystal formation to be as uniform as possible throughout the chocolate mix. When the desired temperature is reached, it is cooled slowly to a point where only type V and VI crystals form but not type I to IV. The ideal temperature is between 28.5 and 30ºC (around 85F). The chocolate is then warmed a second time but only slightly more to reduce to the greatest extent possible any type IV crystals. That temperature is 32.5ºC (90.5ºF).

The other critical feature is to work in as dry an environment as possible and to ensure the cooling process is slow and not very rapid. A number of producers place their tempered chocolate in the refrigerator which is too humid. Ideally cooling tempered chocolate according to the suppliers should be between 12ºC and 15ºC. Any moisture in the atmosphere will condense out and form on the cooling chocolate. A number of producers of chocolate claim to let their chocolate cool between 1 and 2 hours before it is used for enrobing.

There is also the issue of fat bloom caused by incorrect fat recrystallization. The type IV crystals form at the surface because the temperature has altered or the chocolate has not been tempered properly. Sugar too, plays its part in this.

Nutritional Profile

From a nutritional standpoint, cocoa butter is energy-dense, with approximately 120 calories per tablespoon (about 13.6 grams). While it is primarily composed of fats, cocoa butter contains negligible amounts of protein and carbohydrates. Its fat content, however, consists of roughly equal proportions of saturated and unsaturated fats, making it a balanced source of dietary fat.

Health Considerations

Despite its high saturated fat content, cocoa butter is not associated with the same adverse health effects as other saturated fats, such as those found in animal products. The unique fatty acid profile of cocoa butter, particularly its high stearic acid content, appears to have a neutral or even beneficial impact on cholesterol levels. Moreover, cocoa butter contains antioxidants, such as flavonoids, which may offer additional health benefits, including cardiovascular protection and anti-inflammatory effects.

The fats in play a fundamental role in shaping its physical, sensory, and nutritional attributes. The intricate balance of saturated and unsaturated fatty acids, coupled with its polymorphic crystalline structure, gives cocoa butter its characteristic smoothness, stability, and melt-in-the-mouth texture. While cocoa butter is energy-dense and should be consumed in moderation, its unique fatty acid composition and potential health benefits make it a valuable ingredient in various culinary, cosmetic, and pharmaceutical applications.

Applications in the Food Industry

In the United States, 100% cocoa butter must be used for the product to be called chocolate. The European Commission requires that alternative fats not exceed 5% of the total fat content.

Due to costs, cocoa butter is gradually being replaced by cheaper substitutes and there is also an increasing situation with adulteration. In product development terms, a certain amount of cocoa butter can be replaced with coconut or palm oil, soybean oil, rapeseed oil and even mango kernel fat.

A typical milk chocolate formulation will contain 29.2% in a low milk fat product and 26.75% in a high milk fat product.

The most renowned application of cocoa butter is undoubtedly in chocolate production. As a key ingredient in chocolate confectionery, cocoa butter lends richness, creaminess, and a glossy finish to chocolate bars, truffles, and other treats. Its unique crystalline structure also influences the snap, melt-in-the-mouth sensation, and shelf stability of chocolate products.

Beyond chocolates, cocoa butter finds its way into an array of culinary creations. Pastry chefs use it to craft velvety ganaches, delicate chocolate decorations, and decadent desserts. Moreover, cocoa butter serves as a versatile ingredient in savory dishes, adding depth and complexity to sauces, marinades, and even meat rubs.

Cosmetic and Pharmaceutical Applications

In addition to its culinary uses, cocoa butter is a prized ingredient in the cosmetic and pharmaceutical industries. Revered for its emollient properties, cocoa butter is a common component in skincare products such as lotions, creams, and lip balms. Its high fat content helps to moisturize and nourish the skin, leaving it soft, supple, and hydrated.

Furthermore, cocoa butter is valued for its therapeutic properties. It is often used in formulations for treating skin conditions like eczema and dermatitis due to its soothing and anti-inflammatory effects. Additionally, this butter is a popular choice for massage oils and aromatherapy blends, providing relaxation and stress relief.

Sustainable Sourcing and Ethical Considerations

The production of cocoa butter is intricately linked to social, economic, and environmental issues, particularly in regions where cocoa is cultivated. Concerns about deforestation, child labor, and fair trade practices have prompted stakeholders across the cocoa supply chain to advocate for sustainability and ethical sourcing initiatives. Organizations like Fair Trade USA and Rainforest Alliance work to promote responsible farming practices, improve livelihoods for cocoa farmers, and safeguard natural ecosystems.


The USA’s Food & Drug Administration (FDA) defines cocoa butter as ‘the edible fat obtained from sound cocoa beans (Theobroma cacao) or closely related species before or after roasting.” 

Cocoa Butter Substitutes

Due to rising costs, shortages and corruption in supply, cocoa butter substitutes are increasingly being sought. An industry in compound coatings where CB has been replaced with alternative vegetable oils such as palm oil, coconut oil etc. has arisen. There are are undoubtedly successes but even the substitutes such as palm oil are under scrutiny.

Fully hydrogenated palm oil (FHPO) has been shown to be a suitable replacement because melting points can be matched in products such as chocolate bars. However, palm oil is viewed with increasing suspicion because of damage to rainforests and loss of diversity. 

Future Prospects and Innovations

As consumer preferences evolve and demand for natural, sustainable products grows, the future of cocoa butter looks promising. Innovations in processing techniques, such as cold pressing and supercritical fluid extraction, aim to preserve the integrity of cocoa butter while minimizing environmental impact. Moreover, researchers are exploring novel applications of cocoa butter in fields like biomedicine and nanotechnology, leveraging its biocompatibility and controlled release properties for drug delivery systems and tissue engineering.

Understanding this particular component of chocolate is also critical for developing 3D printing of structures. The butter is so influential on thermal and flow properties (Mantihal et al., 2017).

Cocoa butter stands as a testament to nature’s bounty, offering a symphony of flavors, textures, and benefits across various industries. From indulgent chocolates to luxurious skincare formulations, its versatility knows no bounds. As we continue to unravel the mysteries of this magical elixir, one thing remains certain: it will continue to captivate hearts and tantalize taste buds for generations to come.


Afoakwa, E. O. (2016). Chocolate Science and Technology. John Wiley & Sons.

Chapman, D. (1965) The Structure of Lipids by Spectroscopic and X-ray Techniques, Methuen, London. pp. 221–315

Garti, N. & Widlak, N.R. (2015) Cocoa Butter and Related Compounds. AOCS Press. USA

Loisel, C., Keller, G., Lecq, G., Bourgaux, C., & Ollivon, M. (1998). Phase transitions and polymorphism of cocoa butter. Journal of the American Oil Chemists’ Society75, pp. 425-439.

Mantihal, S., Prakash, S., Godoi, F. C., & Bhandari, B. (2017). Optimization of chocolate 3D printing by correlating thermal and flow properties with 3D structure modeling. Innovative Food Science & Emerging Technologies44, pp. 21-29

Mohamed, I.O. (2015) Enzymatic synthesis of cocoa butter equivalent from olive oil and palmitic-stearic fatty acid mixture. Appl. Biochem. Biotech. 175 pp. 757–769.

Wille, R. L., & Lutton, E. S. (1966). Polymorphism of cocoa butter. Journal of the American Oil Chemists’ Society43(8), pp. 491-496 (Article)

Zaidul, I.S.M., Norulaini, N.A.N., Omar AKM, Smith RL. (2007) Blending of supercritical carbon dioxide (SC-CO2) extracted palm kernel oil fractions and palm oil to obtain cocoa butter replacers. J Food Eng. 78 pp. 1397–1409

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