Is Couscous Safe for Your Gluten-Free Diet?

Couscous Salad with tomato, parsley, cucumber ans red onions
Larissa Veronesi Getty

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 find gluten-free couscous products. There are also gluten-free grain products available that are similar in taste and texture to couscous, and 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, especially in salads and some stews. It's also served in stir-fries, typically mixed with vegetables, meat, and spices.

The vast majority of couscous you'll find on offer 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.

Buying Gluten-Free Couscous

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

  • 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., even for order online.
  • Clearspring Organic. Clearspring, a U.K.-based company, makes instant couscous that's made from Italian corn. It'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.
  • 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.
  • 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 via Amazon 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.

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 substitute in recipes:

  • Quinoa. Plain quinoa makes a nearly perfect substitute for couscous. It's similar in looks, 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 a short-grain brown rice such as this Lundberg product, which is gluten-free.

A Word from Verywell

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 repeatedly 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.

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.

Was this page helpful?
View Article Sources