Is Couscous Safe for Your Gluten-Free Diet?


Verywell / Alexandra Shytsman

Conventional couscous looks a little like pasta and somewhat like rice, but it is actually made from grains of durum wheat. It is most definitely not gluten-free. That's because wheat is one of the three grains that contain gluten (barley and rye are the other two).

Any dish that contains conventional couscous is off-limits to you if you're following a gluten-free diet because you have celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity. However, as more and more common gluten foods are being adapted, you can now find gluten-free couscous products.

There are also gluten-free grain products available that are similar in taste and texture to couscous. You also can substitute these in dishes that call for couscous.

What Is Couscous?

Couscous is made from finely ground durum wheat semolina flour. It's light tan or light brown in color, and may be mistaken for short grain brown rice. Some varieties of couscous look like tiny spheres of pasta.

Couscous has a bland taste that pairs well with strongly flavored sauces and other ingredients. You'll find couscous in:

  • Many Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cuisines
  • Salads and some stews
  • Stir-fries, typically mixed with vegetables, meat, and spices

Is Couscous Gluten Free?

Most couscous is not gluten free. The vast majority of couscous you'll find in restaurants and in stores will be conventional couscous made from wheat flour. Therefore, if you follow the gluten-free diet, you shouldn't eat couscous unless it's explicitly marketed as gluten-free. Of course, you also need to trust the restaurant to serve you safe gluten-free food if they indicate that their couscous is gluten free.

Buying Gluten-Free Couscous

Fortunately, if you enjoy cuisine that typically calls for couscous, there are a handful of gluten-free options available, including:

  • Asda: Asda, a grocery store chain in the United Kingdom, sells gluten-free couscous from maize (corn) semolina. Unfortunately, it's generally not available in the U.S.
  • Clearspring Organic: Clearspring, a U.K.-based company, makes a gluten-free instant couscous made from Italian corn that's available on Amazon.
  • Goldbaum's: This company produces a gluten-free Israeli couscous that is made with potato starch, tapioca starch, and egg whites instead of wheat flour. It's also produced in a gluten-free facility. It's available online and in natural foods stores in many larger cities.
  • Streit's: Kosher foods company Streit's makes gluten-free Israeli couscous. The product includes potato and tapioca starch, potato flakes, and egg whites. It's available online and at some Kosher food outlets nationwide. Be aware that Streit's also makes conventional couscous, so be sure to choose the gluten-free version when shopping.
  • Tesco: This is another British grocery store chain that offers gluten-free couscous made from maize (corn). Like Asda's gluten-free couscous, it's generally not available in the U.S.

You might also consider cassava couscous by Nayama Attieke. This gluten-free couscous is made from fermented cassava, also known as yuca or arrowroot.

Attieke is a staple part of the cuisine in Côte d'Ivoire in Africa. Although the texture is similar to that of grain-based couscous, attieke has a slightly sour taste due to its fermentation.

Nayama Attieke is available online at Amazon and other outlets. If you decide to try this couscous, consider using a recipe intended specifically for it, since its flavor may not blend well in recipes intended for a milder-tasting couscous.

Gluten-Free Substitutes 

Admittedly, finding gluten-free couscous can be a challenge, although with some advance planning you likely can secure a box. If you're cooking a dish that calls for couscous on the spur of the moment, you may be better off using a gluten-free grain substitute:

  • Quinoa: Plain quinoa makes a nearly perfect substitute for couscous. It has a similar look, taste, and texture. Just make certain to purchase a gluten-free brand. Both Ancient Harvest and Bob's Red Mill make plain quinoa, although there are many other good choices.
  • Brown rice: Rice is less of a perfect substitute for couscous since the grains are larger and the texture is chewier. However, it generally will work as a one-to-one substitute in recipes that call for couscous. For the best results, look for short-grain brown rice such as Lundberg's, which is gluten-free.

How to Prepare Couscous

Most recipes that call for couscous ask you to cook the couscous first, so that step won't change if you're using gluten-free couscous. Cooking gluten-free couscous is simple: boil it in water according to package directions. You'll need to make certain to follow directions closely, though, because gluten-free grains can get soggy and mushy when cooked for too long.

Keep a careful watch on your pot, and check your couscous regularly so it doesn't overcook.

If you can't find gluten-free couscous and decide to use quinoa or brown rice instead, you'll also want to follow package directions carefully. You may also need to experiment with recipe quantities, especially if you use rice, since rice can absorb more moisture in a recipe than couscous.

A Word From Verywell

Make sure you follow the cooking directions carefully, and do a little extra research on the conversions. If you get it right, you can enjoy a great meal.

4 Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Gluten Intolerance Group. Gluten-Free Grains. Auburn, Wa.: Gluten Intolerance Group 2020

  2. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. Celiac Disease. Bethesda, Md.: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services National Institutes of Health 2020

  3. Pinto-Sanchez MI, Verdu EF. Non-celiac gluten or wheat sensitivity: It's complicated!. Neurogastroenterol Motil. 2018;30(8):e13392. doi:10.1111/nmo.13392

  4. Judith C. Thalheimer. (October 2014). Gluten-Free Whole Grains — Choosing the Best Options While on a Gluten-Free Diet. Today’s Dietitian. 16(10):18

Additional Reading

By Jane Anderson
Jane Anderson is a medical journalist and an expert in celiac disease, gluten sensitivity, and the gluten-free diet.