What’s the Difference Between Bittersweet and Semisweet Chocolate?

In chocolate, what does bittersweet mean versus semisweet? Why do some bittersweet bars actually have less cacao content than some semisweet ones?

Typically, semisweet chocolate has lower cacao content and is sweeter than bittersweet chocolate. However, there are no official guidelines about what can be called bittersweet and what can be called semisweet. The only FDA requirement is that something called dark, bittersweet, or semisweet chocolate contain at least 35 percent cacao and less than 12 percent milk solids (more milk solids, and it’s required to say it’s milk chocolate). Beyond that, labeling is entirely up to the manufacturer. At its most basic, chocolate is made up of cocoa butter and cocoa powder—which together are called cacao liquor and determine cacao content—along with sugar (flavorings and stabilizing chemicals can be added, but the above are the main ingredients). Thus, as cacao percentage goes up, sugar content goes down, but this does not necessarily mean more bitterness, says Frankie Whitman, marketing director for Scharffen Berger. Some regions and processing methods produce cocoa beans that are bitterer than others even if used at the same concentration.