What Is Couscous and Is It Actually Healthy for You?
Couscous is a pantry staple in many kitchens around the world, and for good reason. Common in North African cooking, couscous has a neutral flavor that makes it an ideal side dish for just about any protein or vegetable. It’s also delicious stuffed into peppers or as a base for a salads—but what is it, exactly?
It’s easy to assume couscous is just another healthy grain like bulgur or farro, but that’s not quite the full story. Here’s the funny thing about couscous: it looks and acts like a whole grain, but couscous is actually a type of pasta that’s made from semolina or ground durum wheat.
So with that said, is couscous really that healthy—and should we be eating it at all? To find out, let’s break down the nutrition of this versatile ingredient.
Below, find the nutrition breakdown for a standard ⅓ cup serving of dry, uncooked Moroccan couscous. Note that this amount will yield about 1 cup cooked couscous.
Saturated Fat: 0g
Unsaturated Fats: 0g
Added Sugars: 0g
Calcium: 2% DV
Potassium: 2% DV
Couscous notches impressive numbers in the fiber department. For a relatively small amount, you get just over 10% of your daily fiber needs. Fiber, which is only found in plant-based foods, is crucial for maintaining a healthy gut. A high fiber diet can also help regulate cholesterol levels in the body.
If you’re watching your blood sugar intake, however, you may want to limit the amount of couscous you’re eating. Like many forms of pasta, couscous is higher in simple or refined carbohydrates, which your body digests and converts into energy quickly. This can cause your blood sugar to spike and give you a short-lived rush of energy. On the other hand, complex carbohydrates like oatmeal or sweet potatoes are digested slowly and supply energy over a longer amount of time.
While it's not typically listed on nutrition labels, couscous (as well as all pasta) is an abundant source of selenium, a powerful antioxidant that works alongside vitamin E to promote healthy cells. Selenium also boosts your immune function and helps maintain thyroid health. Just one cup of cooked couscous supplies 43 mcg selenium, about 75% of your daily requirements (55 mcg). While the safe upper limit for selenium is 400 mcg—about nine times the amount in a serving of couscous—be aware that excessive intake can lead to adverse effects such as brittle nails and teeth, a metallic taste in your mouth, nausea, diarrhea, irritability, nervous system problems, and more.
Moroccan Couscous vs. Israeli Couscous
Take a trip down the grain aisle of the grocery store and you’ll probably see two different varieties of couscous. The most common variety is Moroccan couscous, which is smaller in size and cooks faster. There’s also Israeli couscous or pearl couscous, which is made from coarsely ground and toasted wheat flour. This variety is much larger in size and takes longer to cook.
The question is, is one type of couscous healthier than the other? To find out, we compared the nutrition information of both varieties from RiceSelect, a popular brand of couscous and other grains:
As it turns out, the differences in calories, fat, carbohydrates, and protein are pretty minimal. But if you’re looking to save a few calories and carbs and want a little more protein, opt for Moroccan couscous over Israeli couscous.
The Bottom Line: Couscous is mostly carbs (the refined kind) so to get the best nutrient bang for your buck, choose whole-wheat couscous, which has an additional punch of fiber and protein. And while couscous may not look as impressive on paper as powerhouse whole grains like quinoa or farro, it can still be part of a healthy diet. To get the most nutrition from couscous, sure you’re pairing it with vegetables such as leafy greens.
Ready to cook with couscous? Check out collection of healthy couscous recipes for plenty of delicious ideas.