Couscous isn’t bad for you, but it’s probably not as good for you as you might think. Most varieties are nothing more than tiny balls of pasta—opt for whole-wheat couscous or true ancient grains like quinoa instead.
Couscous is a centuries-old staple in North Africa, most famously used for a base in Moroccan stews. It’s recently become popular in America, too. With the surging popularity of quinoa and farro, couscous sometimes gets lumped in as another ancient super grain.
Except couscous isn’t really a grain: it’s just made from them. Couscous is actually a tiny pasta typically made from either barley or wheat, with the latter being the most common kind here in America. Couscous used to be hand-rolled into its signature round shape... but today, it’s manufactured by machine. The wheat is ground, moistened and then tossed with fine wheat flour until the individual couscous balls form.
Once you realize couscous is technically a pasta, it’s not very surprising that it’s nutritional profile isn’t much different from a cup of penne. A cup of cooked couscous contains about 176 calories, which is only slightly lower than your average serving of pasta. It also offers 36 grams of carbohydrates, six grams of protein and two grams of fiber. There’s no sugar, which is a plus. However, couscous still carries a higher glycemic index (GI) than other true grains. Couscous clocks in with a GI of 65, which is high compared to brown rice at a GI of 50 and bulgur at 48. This makes couscous a questionable choice for diabetics or others trying to control their blood sugar.
In addition to being higher in calories and GI, couscous also falls short on crucial nutrients that real whole grains like farro, quinoa, and brown rice contain. So if you routinely opt for couscous over true grains, you’re missing out on more calcium, potassium, vitamin B6 and other vital minerals. You’re also not getting any of the nine amino acids or slew of antioxidants that ancient grains like quinoa provide.
To compensate for the lack of nutrients, it’s easy enough to combine nuts, oil or dried fruit with your serving of couscous. But keep in mind that adds more calories—which could lead to weight gain in the long-term.
So should you stop eating couscous? That’s up to you: in moderation, whole-wheat couscous can easily be a part of a balanced diet. However, it should never become a substitute for true whole grains and the superior nutrients they provide. For maximum nutritional benefits, you should opt for quinoa, brown rice or other ancient grains over couscous as often as possible.
Possible short-term side effects
- increased blood sugar
Possible long-term side effects
- weight gain
- versatile for cooking
- fewer calories than pasta
- contains protein and fiber