Couscous seems like it should be healthy. It looks like a little seed, so it’s easy to assume that it is a nutritious grain alternative, much like quinoa. Yet, this isn’t the case at all. Couscous is actually closer to pasta than it is to quinoa, which raises the question, is couscous good for you?
To begin with, let’s talk about couscous itself. It’s a processed wheat product, one that was once a delicacy and is now easy to find.
Couscous is a popular ingredient, partly because it is fast to cook and has a mild flavor. As such, couscous combines well with many different dishes. Moroccan couscous, which is the smallest and most common version, can even be cooked without a stovetop, making it incredibly versatile.
You’ll often see couscous used instead of rice or quinoa in recipes. It has similar features to both of those ingredients, along with some distinct differences. Whether couscous is a good choice or not depends on a variety of factors, including the rest of your diet.
Is Couscous Good For You?
- An Introduction To Couscous
- The Benefits Of Couscous
- Why Couscous May Be A Problem
- What About Whole Wheat Couscous
- Couscous Versus Rice
- Couscous Versus Quinoa
- How Do You Get The Most Benefits?
- Final Thoughts
An Introduction to Couscous
Let’s begin with couscous itself. As we mentioned before, couscous isn’t a grain at all. It’s made from crushed durum wheat semolina instead, which makes it similar to pasta.
Durum wheat semolina is sometimes seen as one of the healthier types of flour, although it is still quite processed. There are multiple types of couscous, which differ in the size of their ‘grains’.
- Moroccan couscous. This is the most common version and is what most people mean when they talk about couscous. It has tiny grains that cook quickly, often in 5 minutes or less.
- Israeli couscous. This version also goes by the name pearl couscous. It has a larger grain and looks more like pasta than Moroccan couscous does. Cooking takes roughly 10 minutes.
- Lebanese couscous. Here, the individual grains are roughly the size of a pea, making it the largest type of couscous. This time, cooking takes around 15 minutes.
The chewiness of the couscous balls tends to increase with size. The larger versions also have a slight nutty flavor. The nuttiness isn’t strong, so even Lebanese couscous pairs with a wide range of ingredients.
The differences in size and texture also mean that some couscous sizes work better in particular recipes. For example, the larger couscous balls aren’t ideal as a rice replacement, but are perfect for many salads.
The Benefits Of Couscous
A Practical Ingredient
The first advantage of couscous is one you’ve probably noticed – it’s easy to use. This is especially true for Moroccan couscous. Cooking this type of couscous is as simple as adding boiling water to it, cover the container, and then leave it to sit for around 5 minutes.
After this, you can fluff it with a fork and perhaps add some butter or olive oil, then you’re good to go. Not only is this a fast cooking method, but you don’t need to worry about a burner either.
Couscous doesn’t have much flavor, so it’s an ideal base for plenty of meals. You can pair it with meat, sauce, vegetables, or other ingredients, without worrying about any flavor clashes.
The ease of preparation is important for your health too.
After all, many people struggle to find the time and energy to eat well. Making healthy meals from whole foods takes a decent amount of effort, which you might not always have at the end of the day.
Couscous offers an easy way to still eat well.
Plus, couscous is exceptional when you’re traveling or camping. All you need is a kettle to boil water and you can prepare the couscous. You can then top it with all manner of ingredients to create a delicious bowl-based meal.
We’ll be honest, couscous isn’t the most nutritious food (more on that soon). Still, it is a surprisingly decent source of protein, with a cup of cooked couscous giving you around 6 grams of protein.
This makes it a filling choice, especially when paired with meat and vegetables. The fiber content is decent as well and you do get some other nutrients like magnesium, vitamin B6, and iron.
Couscous is an excellent source of selenium too. You get around 60% of your daily selenium intake in a cup of couscous. This is an impressive amount. Plus, selenium has been linked to many benefits, like improved immune system function, good thyroid health, and protection against some types of cancer.
You’re also getting some antioxidants and phytonutrients, just like you would with any other type of plant-based food.
Can Be A Useful Weight Loss Food
If you prepare couscous using just water, then you get around 174 calories per cup of cooked couscous. In fact, couscous contains fewer calories than quinoa and brown rice. It could be the ideal weight loss ingredient in some situations.
The lack of fat is one reason for the low calorie content. This also makes couscous relevant for anyone who needs to keep their fat intake down.
Couscous Is Plant-Based
As a plant-based food, couscous is perfect for anyone on a vegetarian or a vegan diet. Plus, diets rich in plant-based protein have been linked to a variety of benefits. It’s often worth having a few meals each week that rely on plant protein rather than protein from animals.
Why Couscous May Be A Problem
It’s Rich In Gluten
Couscous is made from wheat, so the gluten content isn’t a surprise. This makes couscous a no-go for anyone sensitive to gluten.
The Carb Content
I’m sure you’ve heard the debate about carbs by now. While carbs are a common energy source, some theories suggest that they cause far more harm than good. Low carb diets have become popular as a way to lose weight and improve health.
Whether carbs are bad or not is a matter of debate – and a topic we’ve covered in more detail elsewhere.
Regardless, if you’re concerned about carbs, then couscous is a poor choice. A cup of cooked couscous contains a whopping 36 grams of carbs, only 2 of which come from fiber.
With this balance of carbs and fiber, it’s not surprising that couscous is a relatively high glycemic index (GI) food, with a GI of 65. This is another disadvantage, as high GI foods have strong effects on your blood sugar levels.
May Cause A Blood Sugar Spike
While the fiber and protein in couscous help to stabilize blood sugar, you might still get a notable blood sugar spike from a couscous-based meal. The carb content is the main reason for this – as 36 grams of carbs per serving is quite high.
This type of blood sugar spike isn’t great for your health. It’s even worse for people with health conditions like diabetes, where it’s crucial to keep blood sugar levels in check. You can reduce this effect by pairing couscous with lower GI ingredients, including vegetables and meat.
Couscous isn’t terribly expensive, but it tends to cost more than white rice, beans, and some other common foods. This could be a problem if you’re on a budget and are hoping to replace rice with couscous.
Thankfully, shopping around can help. Some specialty stores may sell couscous at a lower price, like a grocery store that focuses on Middle Eastern ingredients.
What About Whole Wheat Couscous?
While the wheat used to create couscous is arguably healthier than what you find in white pasta, it still isn’t a whole grain. This means you’re missing out on the range of nutrients that you find in whole grain foods, including brown rice.
To get around this, you’ll need to look for whole wheat couscous instead. As you might expect, whole wheat couscous gives you the advantages of whole grains and couscous in a single ingredient. The nutritional profile ends up being similar to brown rice, making the whole wheat version a healthier choice.
Of course, whole wheat couscous isn’t as mild as regular couscous and mightn’t work as well in all your favorite dishes. Whole wheat couscous may be harder to find and more expensive too.
Couscous Versus Rice
Couscous is often used instead of white rice in dishes. It has some advantages here, including being easier to cook than rice and having a slightly better nutrient profile. Still, let’s be honest, white rice isn’t a great source of nutrients, so saying that white rice is more nutritious isn’t an amazing boast.
Brown rice is a better choice, as it’s a whole grain that contains more fiber and nutrients than white rice and couscous.
However, couscous still contains more protein per serving than white rice or brown rice. This may make it appealing if you’re looking for a satisfying meal.
From a flavor and texture perspective, couscous works well instead of rice for some meals and not for others. This is the case with any substitution. Your personal preferences will come into play too, so it might take some experimenting before you have a sense of when you prefer rice and when you prefer couscous.
Couscous Versus Quinoa
Couscous is often compared to quinoa too. Quinoa is seen as a modern superfood, one that offers similar benefits to grains, without the downsides. It’s also called a pseudocereal, as we treat quinoa in a similar way to cereal grains, but it doesn’t come from the same family.
The superfood label comes from quinoa’s nutritional density. The tiny seeds contain more vitamins, minerals, protein, and fiber than couscous, making them a clear winner.
Of course, quinoa does have some issues. It’s slightly higher in calories and fat than couscous and is still a carb-rich food (although the carb content is lower than couscous).
Quinoa takes longer to cook than small-grained couscous and has more ‘bite’ to it. These features mean that some meals will work better with couscous than quinoa, and vice versa. There are different colors of quinoa to choose from. These are similar to each other, although there are slight differences.
In the end, the ingredient you use will depend on the recipe you’re looking at, along with your own preferences.
How Do You Get The Most Benefits From Couscous?
Couscous can be healthy, but it’s not the most powerful ingredient out there. You can maximize the benefits by using couscous as part of a balanced diet and by pairing it with other healthy ingredients.
Whenever possible, try to serve some protein-rich foods and some fiber-rich foods with couscous. This helps to balance out the carb content of couscous and should prevent blood sugar spikes.
Like most plant-based foods, the protein in couscous is considered incomplete – it doesn’t contain all the amino acids that you need. This is another reason why you should always include a variety of protein sources in your meals.
You can also try mixing couscous with other grains or grain-like ingredients, like brown rice, quinoa, or amaranth. Doing so gives you a better balance of nutrients, along with some interesting textures. However, to do so, you’ll need to prepare each ingredient separately, as they all have different cooking times.
Why not look for ethnic recipes too? Couscous has a rich history in North Africa, Israel, and various other places. Recipes often heavily rely on spices and whole foods, making them delicious additions to your diet.
The final thing is to watch how often you use couscous. There are many other ingredients that you can use similarly, including white rice, brown rice, quinoa, and most ancient grains.
Each type has a different balance of nutrients and plant-based compounds. You’ll get the most benefits by including a broad array of these ingredients in your diet.
Couscous isn’t the healthy pseudograin that it first appears to be. Instead, it’s a processed wheat-based product that’s high in gluten and carbs.
Even so, there are some clear advantages to couscous, including how easy it is to use, the selenium content, and the protein. These benefits mean that you shouldn’t need to write couscous out of your diet entirely.
Instead, it helps to serve couscous with healthy ingredients and make sure that you don’t use couscous all the time.