The more we learn about the inflammatory properties of conventional grains, the more people are seeking out healthier alternatives. Is one of those alternatives couscous — and just what is couscous?
Many people confuse couscous with quinoa, as they are somewhat similar visually. However, while quinoa is a gluten-free ancient grain, couscous actually contains gluten and is typically not sold in whole grain form.
While whole grain couscous might be a good item to occasionally add to your pantry, it isn’t something I use regularly, like amaranth or quinoa. So what is couscous exactly, what is couscous good for and should you use it?
Let’s look at what is couscous, how it might be beneficial to your health (or not) and potential alternatives.
What Is Couscous?
Most consider couscous a grain, but that isn’t exactly accurate. Technically, “Couscous is a pasta made from semolina flour mixed with water.” (1) Semolina flour is extremely high in gluten and a common flour used in pastas, as it creates firm noodles and isn’t as sticky as many other flours.
Durum wheat is the natural species of wheat from which semolina flour is created before it’s made into couscous. The second most cultivated wheat species after common wheat, durum wheat is often referred to as “pasta wheat” or “macaroni wheat.”
Interestingly, durum wheat is fairly high in protein. It also contains about 3 percent more extractable (“wet”) gluten than common wheat, which is used to make most bread products.
Now that the labor-intensive process of making couscous has been mechanized, it’s not hard to create and sell couscous in bulk. Typically, it is used as an ingredient in salads, stews or other dishes in which you might use wild rice or orzo.
In addition, you can find or make wheat couscous, preferably whole wheat couscous, and it can used in the same way as regular couscous.
Now that we’ve answered the question, “What is couscous?” it’s important to understand whether or not it’s a healthful, life-giving food. Couscous is not a well-researched food in terms of health benefits, but there may be some overall benefits to using whole grains in the diets of certain individuals.
For the purposes of this list of couscous benefits, I’m referring only to whole grain couscous, as removing the endosperm from germ and bran strips grains of most health benefits they may contain otherwise.
You’ll find as you look at the benefits versus potential downsides of couscous that I don’t think this grain is dangerous and not necessarily likely to cause you harm — I just don’t think the potential benefits outweigh the drawbacks. Why worry about eating this food when there are better alternatives to couscous?
1. Associated with Reduced Risk of Chronic Disease
Over the years, whole grains have been studied for their association with lower levels of chronic disease. Many large observational studies have noted that a diet including whole grains is correlated with lower risk for heart disease, type 2 diabetes and certain cancers. (2, 3)
Couscous does contain notable amounts of several important nutrients, such as niacin, thiamine and folate, all of which are necessary for a well-rounded, nutrient-rich diet.
A grain-free diet is not necessary for most people, even if you stick to only gluten-free grains. Unless you find your body fares better doing entirely grain-free, eating whole wheat grains like couscous may help your body protect against some chronic diseases.
2. Contains Antioxidants
One reason whole grains may be disease-protecting is because they contain antioxidants. Many people don’t think of whole grain foods as high-antioxidant foods, but whole grains, including whole grain durum wheat (from where couscous is derived), have comparable amounts of antioxidants to most fruits and vegetables. (4, 5)
The phytochemicals and antioxidants in whole grains are considered unique by some researchers and may include beneficial nutrients like lutein, zeaxanthin and β-cryptoxanthin. It’s important to note that these antioxidants are found almost entirely in the germ and bran, meaning that the endosperm-only conventional couscous is unlikely to hold any of these antioxidants and their relation benefits. (6)
Specifically, one serving of whole grain couscous contains 62 percent of your daily requirement for selenium, a vital antioxidant mineral with many benefits. Selenium has been a research topic related to positive antiviral effects, male and female fertility, and decreased risks of cancer, autoimmune diseases and thyroid disease. (7)
In general, antioxidants help reduce oxidative stress associated with high levels of chronic inflammation and disease risk.
3. Aids Digestive Health
Due to their fiber content, whole grains like couscous seem to support gastrointestinal health. (8) The fiber in whole grains functions as a prebiotic, aiding in digestion and general gut health. Prebiotic fibers are also associated with enhanced immunity since 80 percent of your immune system lives in your gut. (9)
4. May Support Weight Loss
The digestion-benefiting impact of couscous and other whole grains is also associated with lower body weight. While dietary options for weight loss vary greatly between individuals, non-gluten-sensitive people may find that whole grain couscous supports a weight loss lifestyle when consumed in moderation. (10)
Personally, I don’t eat many gluten-containing foods because the genetically modified gluten available in most grain products is inflammatory and, frankly, unnecessary. One exception for me is sprouted, USDA-certified organic whole grains like Ezekiel bread.
But what is couscous in this context — sprouted and USDA-certified organic or filled with artificial ingredients and GMOs? No genetically modified wheat products are produced commercially throughout the world, although hybridization is something to consider (which I’ll discuss in a moment). Unfortunately, couscous is not available in sprouted form at the time of this writing. However, it is possible to find USDA-certified organic couscous.
So, then, what are some potential downsides of couscous?
1. Made from Hybridized Wheat
While durum wheat is not technically genetically modified in the same way most corn is, it is created by a process of natural hybridization. Making hybridized wheat is a process by which scientists (or nature) combine genes of various species to make a new species. Although the hybridization that occurs in durum wheat does happen in nature, there is research currently being conducted to figure out ways to genetically modify this hybrid species to make it easier to produce commercially. (11)
Why does this matter? While current scientific trends haven’t allowed for much research on the topic, Dr. William Davis, author of “Wheat Belly” and creator of the wheat belly diet, states his opinion on wheat hybridization: (12)
By definition, hybridization, back-crossing, and mutation-inducing techniques are difficult to control, unpredictable, and generate plenty of unexpected results. In short, they are worse than genetic modification… I am no defender of genetic-modification, but it is pure craziness that Agribusiness apologists defend modern wheat because it is not yet the recipient of ‘genetic modification.’
On the other hand, some agricultural experts and scientists claim that neither genetically modified foods nor hybridized foods are dangerous to health in any way and are created in an attempt to streamline and improve production processes.
Ultimately, you’ll need to decide what’s right for you and your family. I prefer to stay away from as much hybridized food when I can and eat what grows naturally, without as much human intervention to manipulate it.
2. Contains Gluten
While the topic of the true benefits of a gluten-free lifestyle is a hot button right now, it’s important to note that couscous contains gluten. More and more science is coming around to recognize that those with either a gluten sensitivity or celiac disease will greatly benefit from eliminating gluten from their diets.
People on a celiac disease diet should never consume couscous in any form.
Some people report that whole grains processed in other ways than Western, commercialized agriculture are easier on their digestive systems and don’t cause the same issues as conventional wheat products. However, this kind of personal experiment should only be conducted under the supervision of your health care provider.
Modern gluten is connected to inflammation, which is at the root of most diseases. (13) Results from animal studies suggest that eliminating gluten may aid in weight loss as well as a reduction in inflammation. (14) In humans, gluten-free diets for healthy people may lead to improved gut bacteria (diversity in the microbiome), lowered inflammation and better immune responses. (15)
3. High on the Glycemic Index
Even for a gluten-containing grain, couscous is high on the glycemic index. Although it’s true that a diet containing whole grains is believed to be disease-protective, it’s also true that, according to the large-scale Nurses’ Health Study, women who eat higher glycemic load diets are more likely to develop type 2 diabetes or heart disease than those who eat low glycemic load diets. Namely, the higher glycemic load in the first group of the study was associated specifically with refined carbohydrates (like conventional couscous). (16)
Foods with a glycemic index (GI) of 50–70 are considered in the “medium” range, while foods under 50 on the GI are “low.” Anything above 70 is considered “high.”
Couscous ranks at 65 on the glycemic index per 150 grams. For reference, at this number of grams, whole wheat kernels rank at 45, brown rice at 50 and quinoa clocks in at 53. (17)
The benefits of eating more foods low on the glycemic index include not only a reduction in your risk for heart disease, insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes, but also more normalized blood sugar, lessened appetite and stabilized energy levels.
There are a decent number of nutrients found in one serving of couscous. What is couscous nutrition in general? It’s somewhat similar to the profile of brown rice and quinoa, although quinoa definitely wins the “superfood badge” from me with the amount of vitamins and minerals per serving it contains.
One cup of cooked couscous (about 157 grams) contains about: (18)
- 176 calories
- 36.5 grams carbohydrates
- 5.9 grams protein
- 0.3 gram fat
- 2.2 grams fiber
- 43.2 micrograms selenium (62 percent DV)
- 1.5 milligrams niacin/vitamin B3 (8 percent DV)
- 0.1 milligram thiamine/vitamin B1 (7 percent DV)
- 0.1 milligram manganese (7 percent DV)
- 23.5 micrograms folate (6 percent DV)
- 0.6 milligram pantothenic acid/vitamin B5 (6 percent DV)
- 0.1 milligram vitamin B6 (4 percent DV)
- 0.6 milligram iron (3 percent DV)
- 12.6 milligrams magnesium (3 percent DV)
- 34.5 milligrams phosphorus (3 percent DV)
- 0.4 milligram zinc (3 percent DV)
- 0.1 milligram copper (3 percent DV)
- 34.5 milligrams phosphorus (3 percent DV)
Couscous vs. Other Grains
Nutritionally, couscous is similar to many rices, grains and pastas. The biggest differences, in many ways, are the presence of gluten and the type of couscous (whole wheat vs. refined). In other ways, couscous is similar to (although maybe just a tad more unhealthy than) most rices, pastas and grains.
For example, white rice is higher on the GI than couscous (ranking as a high-GI food at 72), while brown rice is 15 points lower at 50. Sweet corn comes in at 48, while pearled barley is all the way down at 25. On the pasta side, couscous outranks many popular choices like fettuccine noodles (32), macaroni (50), white spaghetti (46) and whole grain spaghetti (42).
Regarding gluten, most pastas are similar to couscous in that they are able to form precisely because of the presence of gluten. However, rices are typically gluten-free, and grains are a toss-up. Some grains, like buckwheat, amaranth and quinoa, are gluten-free, while others, such as bulgur wheat, barley and rye, do contain gluten.
Because they look (and sort of taste) so similar, couscous is often compared to quinoa. In my opinion, though, there is no comparison.
While the possible benefits of couscous are limited at best, quinoa is a well-researched superfood. For example, quinoa nutrition can help aid weight loss efforts, may help to fight cancer, supports a healthy heart, contains plentiful amounts of antioxidants known as bioflavonoids, helps support digestive health, supports proper bone health and also may reduce the risk of diabetes.
When I have to pick, I choose quinoa every time. After all, what is couscous when you compare it to a powerhouse like quinoa?
Where to Find
If you’re interested in trying it out, you can find couscous in most grocery stores throughout the U.S. It’s commonly found in the pasta, rice or “international foods” section. Unlike many Middle Eastern food ingredients, it’s so popular that it’s become easy to find.
Some varieties of couscous include pre-seasoned kernels, so keep that in mind depending on which couscous recipe you’re going for at any given time. Many experts recommend starting out with unflavored couscous to give yourself a real chance at learning the flavor profile and what you do and don’t want to put with it.
There are also multiple types of couscous you may find, depending on how complex a variety your local store stocks. Larger couscous may be labeled as “pearl” or “Israeli” couscous, and these take longer to cook. The smaller couscous varieties are more what you may expect to find if you bought it in the Maghreb, where it originates. These may be labeled “Libyan” or “Lebanese.”
If you’re incredibly adventurous and find yourself in the Middle East, you may even get your hands on traditionally handmade couscous. It’s a complicated skill to master and a pretty labor-intensive process, which is why you’ll only find commercially produced varieties most places in the U.S.
Uses and Recipes
Most people aren’t interested in taking the time to create handmade couscous. However, it’s a fascinating, complex process.
First, durum wheat is put to a millstone and ground. The endosperm is resistant to grinding, and that’s what you’ll find left over — this final product is referred to as semolina flour. After this step, water is sprinkled onto the semolina, which is then rolled by hand into small pellets as they are sprinkled with dry flour to achieve separation. After several days (yes, you read that correctly), the separated pellets are then put out in the sunlight to dry and can be used over the course of months.
Roll, rinse, repeat.
In Western life, to get to this step, you stop by a grocery store and buy a bag of couscous.
Couscous is actually quite easy to use in recipes. You can boil it, but most sources recommend just pouring boiling water over it to re-fluff the pasta pellets. Otherwise, it may end up mushy. Another alternative may be a specialized couscous pot, but these pots are often expensive and definitely aren’t necessary for cooking couscous recipes.
As far as taste, couscous tends to take on the flavor of whatever you cook it with, which is why many people choose to cook it in some type of broth like bone broth. It has a similar taste to semolina pasta, as they’re made from the same base. Larger pellet couscous tends to taste more “nutty” than smaller, more authentic types.
When making couscous recipes, use caution: It’s ready fast. Unless you choose to ready it by steaming (considered a more “traditional” method), which takes 90 minutes or so, you’ll find that either boiling or running boiling water over it will result in a final product in just a few minutes. From there, it’s pretty hard to mess it up — couscous goes with just about any dish.
There are a few simple couscous recipes you may try, like savory couscous. This super easy recipe just requires some grass-fed butter, onion, garlic, fresh coriander and chicken stock (or bone broth, if you’re as big of a fan as I am). Coriander in particular helps lower blood sugar, so it may counter some unwanted blood sugar spikes couscous tends to cause.
For a well-seasoned type of couscous that works great in salads, try your hand at easy lemon couscous. Lemon nutrition is impressively high in antioxidants and helps boost immunity and promote heart health.
You may also want to try cooking Israeli couscous, the larger version of traditional Maghrebian couscous. It’s a great way to make a pilaf and also tastes nice with a vegetable stir-fry.
Personally, I like to stick to ancient grains with more health benefits than couscous. Instead of couscous, maybe it’s time to try some millet recipes? My roundup of 24 recipes using millet (an alkaline, gluten-free, low-GI food) includes everything from breakfast bowl millet to choco-nut puffed millet squares.
You can also use bulgur wheat as a couscous or quinoa alternative. Try a tabouli bulgur wheat salad for a tasty, alkaline meal.
Of course, my favorite couscous alternative is quinoa. This versatile grain tastes great in beef and quinoa stuffed bell peppers, or have a comforting sweet treat using my baked quinoa with apples recipe.
Some people recommend using rice instead of couscous. I would agree that rice is better than couscous, given that we’re talking about brown rice. White rice has no legitimate nutritional benefits, but brown rice is lower on the glycemic index and gives your health a boost.
In western North Africa, there lies a desert region known as the Maghreb. Five countries are encompassed in this major portion of the Sahara Desert, including Algeria, Libya, Morocco, Mauritania, Tunisia and Western Sahara. Those who live in these countries typically speak Maghrebi Arabic or Berber.
They’re also the people who discovered the process of creating couscous, so it should be no surprise it’s popular in African cuisine.
Dating back to the seventh century, the traditional couscous dish was considered a North African delicacy, now enjoyed in common dishes throughout the region as an African cuisine staple.
Making properly cooked couscous is a specific process, much like creating couscous is, and couscous is often steamed. Traditional North African families often use a taseksut (also known as a couscoussier or kiskas) to steam couscous. This metal pot looks similar to an oil jar and consists of two parts: the bottom, where stew is cooked, and the top, in which the couscous is steamed from the stew so that it can absorb the flavors of the hearty stew.
Risks and Side Effects
As I mentioned, couscous is a gluten-containing pasta, so anyone with celiac disease or a gluten sensitivity should steer clear. Couscous may also cause unwanted spikes in blood sugar and should be eaten with caution by people with diabetes symptoms.
You can be allergic to any food, including couscous. If you begin to experience food allergy symptoms after eating couscous (like swelling of the mouth, tongue or throat; rash; or itching/burning around your mouth), discontinue eating and see your health care professional. He or she can determine if you experienced an allergic reaction to couscous.
What is couscous? It’s a pasta, often thought of as a grain, that originated in the North African region of the Sahara Desert known as the Maghreb. It’s been eaten by families in this region for centuries and has gained attention in the Western world in recent years.
What is couscous good for? When bought in “whole grain” form (although, as I said, it is technically a pasta), it may be associated with some of the health benefits gained by eating whole grains, such as reduced risk of chronic disease, high antioxidant load, digestive support and weight loss.
However, the potential downsides to couscous include:
- Made from hybridized wheat
- Contains gluten
- High on the glycemic index
Couscous recipes are vast, as it takes on the taste of what it’s cooked with and can go in most types of dishes. It has a mild, pasta-like flavor on its own.
Personally, I think there are better alternatives to couscous that either don’t contain gluten or have been found to benefit health directly. My favorites are buckwheat, amaranth, bulgur wheat, millet and, of course, quinoa.