Is couscous healthy?

What is couscous made from, what's a healthy portion size, and how can you buy the best? Discover this starchy food's nutritional profile with our expert guide.

A bowl of couscous topped with onions and herbs

Easy to store, quick to prepare and super versatile, couscous is a great addition to any midweek menu. But is it a healthy ingredient? Read on to discover which nutrients it contains, how to choose the healthiest couscous and how to measure out a perfect portion size.
 

What is couscous?

Although couscous looks like a grain, it's technically a pasta – it's made with semolina flour from durum wheat, mixed with water. There are three different types of couscous: Moroccan, which is the smallest; Israeli or pearl couscous, about the size of peppercorns; and Lebanese, the largest of the three.

It’s super easy to make by simply pouring boiling water over the dried couscous and leaving to stand for 5-15 minutes.
 

Nutritional profile of couscous

Couscous contains mostly carbohydrate as it’s made from semolina, but it also contains quite good levels of protein and fibre with very little fat and no salt. Nutritionally, couscous contains some calcium, magnesium, iron and zinc, as well as some of the B vitamins and vitamin E. 

Couscous also contains gluten and is therefore not suitable for anyone with a gluten intolerance or coeliac disease.
 

What is a healthy portion size?

Couscous is a starchy food and sits as a medium food in terms of glycaemic index, which means that people with any heart disease risk or diabetes will need to be more mindful of portion sizes. Eating couscous with adequate protein and non-starchy vegetables will also help slow down the release of sugar.

The NHS recommends that starchy foods, including couscous, should be consumed daily and make up about a third of your daily food intake. Although the NHS don’t provide actual weights for starchy foods, 80-100g of cooked couscous is a good guide for one portion.

When cooking couscous, the dried weight is double the cooked weight – for example, 100g dried couscous will make approximately 200g cooked couscous. If you don’t have any scales to hand, then 100g cooked couscous is about the size of a tight fist, and 200g dried couscous is approximately one cupped handful.

Two stuffed peppers filled with couscous

How to buy the healthiest couscous

Where possible, look for wholewheat couscous to optimise its fibre and nutritional content. It's made from wholewheat durum, just like wholewheat pasta, and has around double the amount of fibre compared to normal couscous.

Fibre is an essential part of our diet, helping to support good digestive health and prevent constipation, and research suggests it may also help to improve levels of good bacteria in the gut. However, most of us don't eat enough fibre, getting around 18g a day instead of the recommended 30g. Swapping your usual couscous for wholewheat is an easy way to increase your fibre intake.

Wholewheat couscous will also help you to feel fuller for longer, because of its higher fibre content – the fibre slows down the breakdown of sugar into the bloodstream, providing more stable energy.

You can buy pre-flavoured packets of couscous, such as lemon and coriander or roasted vegetable, but they contain added salt and sugar and sometimes palm oil. Ideally, it's better to buy plain couscous and add your own flavours.
 

Healthy couscous recipes

Try the tasty recipes in our healthy couscous collection.
 

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This article was published on 14th August 2018.

Nicola Shubrook is a nutritional therapist and works with both private clients and the corporate sector. She is an accredited member of the British Association for Applied Nutrition and Nutritional Therapy (BANT) and the Complementary & Natural Healthcare Council (CNHC). Find out more at urbanwellness.co.uk.

All health content on bbcgoodfood.com is provided for general information only, and should not be treated as a substitute for the medical advice of your own doctor or any other healthcare professional. If you have any concerns about your general health, you should contact your local healthcare provider. See our website terms and conditions for more information.

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chrisnation's picture
chrisnation
9th Oct, 2018
Does c/cous show the same properties as pasta viz "the process of cooking pasta and then cooling it down changes its structure, turning it into something called 'resistant starch'. This means that it's more resistant to the enzymes in our gut which break down carbohydrates and release glucose – this normally causes a rapid increase in blood sugar."
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