Couscous vs quinoa: What’s the Difference?

Published Categorized as Guide

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As vegan diets become increasingly popular, the urge to eat plant-based superfoods and to experiment with grains and beans and proteins is also growing.

In recent years there has been a noticeable rise in the popularity of quinoa, but many people often confuse it for what it is. Similarly, couscous comes with a wave of confusion. And then when compared, often people mix up the two and have very little idea on what’s what.

Well, if you think you may be guilty of the above, don’t worry too much, I am here to help! Both quinoa and couscous can bring delicious, healthy and versatile nutrition to your meals, so being able to tell them apart and to use them to their advantage can be really beneficial to both your health and your tastebuds!

Both are often used in place of pasta or rice and come with their own health benefits, but today I am going to explain just what each food is and why and how they differ. By the end of the article you will know how and when to use both couscous and quinoa to really enhance your meals!

Table of Contents

What is couscous?

Believe it or not, couscous is a very small variety of beaded pasta. It is used for making steamed semolina – wheat flour made from durum wheat. Although there is the misconception that couscous is a form of grain, this is in fact incorrect and as a form of pasta, couscous is not suitable on a gluten free diet.

Couscous is a staple food in countries in north Africa, primarily Morocco where it is a national dish, Tunisia and Algeria. It is used in place of rice or pasta, and can be served to compliment a number of meals. They often cook quinoa to have it alongside salads, but also use it to accompany meats.

What is quinoa?

Quinoa, unlike couscous, is in fact a grain. Although it belongs to the Chenopodiaceae, or goosefoot, family, it is actually categorised as a pseudo-cereal and cooked quinoa is often consumed as a grain rather than a seed.

Quinoa is derived from the Andean region of South America and comes in three varieties – red, black and white.



Whilst both are high in nutritional value, the chart below compares 1 cup of cooked couscous with 1 cup of cooked quinoa.

FIBER (g)1.56
FAT (g)04
MINERALSMagnesiumIron, magnesium, potassium, zinc
VITAMINSFolic acid, B1, B3Folic acid, B1, B2, B3, B6

Whilst quinoa is only slightly higher in calories, it is also noticeably higher in carbs, fiber, protein and fat, whilst also containing more vitamins and minerals. Depending on your diet and aims of nutrition, the differences between quinoa and couscous could really make a difference.

Overall, quinoa is a lot richer in nutrients than couscous, and although it is higher in fat, it is important to note that the fats found in quinoa are natural fats and whilst still considered a fat, it comes with many health benefits.

Quinoa is high in amino acids making it a strong plant based protein and a lot richer in protein than most grains. This means it is perfect for those on a plant-based diet. Further to this, quinoa is gluten free, making it a great alternative for anyone with celiac disease.

Both are high in dietary fiber, however quinoa is noticeably higher meaning that  quinoa will leave you feeling fuller for longer than the tiny pasta.

Health Benefits

On the back of their nutritional profiles, both quinoa and couscous come with some fantastic health benefits.

Couscous is packed full of selenium, which is great at supporting your immune system and thyroid function. It also has many antioxidants that help lower the risk of certain cancers and heart disease.

These antioxidants are also present in quinoa, and on top of that, quinoa has a high iron content meaning it is great for increasing energy levels and overall metabolism.

However, as mentioned, couscous is made from wheat and therefore contains gluten. It is said that although quinoa is naturally gluten free, it contains prolamins, a group of proteins present in gluten. Despite this, the human daily intake of quinoa is not enough for these proteins to cause a reaction in someone with celiac disease, though it is important to bear this in mind for anyone who may over-consume.

Taste and Texture

Couscous has a very light, fluffy texture when prepared properly. Although it is sill slightly grainy, it is soft to eat, much like pasta.

Couscous has quite a bland, neutral flavor, meaning that it is not enjoyable to eat alone, but can be a great sponge that absorbs the flavors of the other foods it is served with. Couscous is often mixed with spices and herbs and it really helps to emphasise the flavors.

When served with sauce, couscous does a great job of absorbing the sauce which brings out the flavors of whatever the couscous is accompanying without altering the meal or overpowering anything.

On the other hand, quinoa has a harder, grainy texture. It is not as light and fluffy and whilst couscous crumbles and separates, quinoa sticks together slightly more and comes with a slight crunch.

Quinoa also packs a slightly nutty flavor. It is still not a flavor strong enough to make quinoa enjoyable on its own, but it compliments other foods well and brings a slight flavor to things like salad.


In terms of preparation, both ingredients are actually very similar. To make both couscous and quinoa, you simply add the required amount of hot water to one cup of either quinoa or couscous and leave it to absorb the water.

Couscous is slightly easier to prepare as you simply leave it to cover until it absorbs the water and forms a pasta like texture. Quinoa can be slightly harder to get right, and the first few times you may have to add extra water and stir it more before it is perfect.

For both couscous and quinoa you can use vegetable broth in place of the water. This brings some extra flavor to the preparation stage without taking away from it being plant-based and vegan.

Culinary Uses

When looking at quinoa vs couscous it is actually very common to use them interchangeably. Although they slightly differ in texture, their flavors are both quite bland, meaning that neither will add too much or take away too much from the main meal.

The important thing to remember when replacing one with the other is that couscous is not gluten free. Both can be enjoyed hot or cold, and in terms of preparation they take similar amounts of time. It is popular to use both quinoa and couscous as side dishes or in salads, so besides the gluten sensitivity they can both do a pretty similar job.

Quinoa can also be made into flour and used in baked goods. This is because the starch contains certain functional properties that allow it to bring extra protein, fiber, and antioxidants but no gluten to your baked goods, making them nutritionally better.


Quinoa vs Couscous

Couscous and quinoa are both similar in many ways but also differ greatly.

In terms of preparation and use, both require very little in terms of cooking quinoa and cooking couscous. They both lack any form of strong flavor, making them the perfect addition to your meals, bringing in some extra nutrition without overpowering any flavors or altering the taste of the food.

This means that quinoa and couscous can be used in place of each other in many situations. Both can be served cold or hot, and both are particularly perfect in a salad or as a side dish.

In terms of nutrition, quinoa is noticeably higher and as it is a naturally gluten free ingredient it makes it a better alternative for slightly more restricted diets. In spite of this, both couscous and quinoa are healthy, filling and suitable for vegans and so either can be used successfully on a plant-based diet.

Overall, both are delicious, easy to prepare and a great source of fibre, protein and carbohydrates whilst staying reasonably low in calories!


Is couscous a good or bad carb?

This depends one what you qualify as a good carb. Couscous contains lots of nutritional benefits and will help to keep you feeling fuller throughout the day. It is lower in fiber and protein than other carbohydrates and so this is something to consider.

Why is quinoa bad for you?

Quinoa is not bad for you. It is high in natural fats and so because of this some people may choose to avoid it.

Can I substitute quinoa for couscous?

In most cases both quinoa and couscous can work in place of one another. Quinoa has a slightly nutty flavor and crunchier texture, but both work great at absorbing the flavors of the meal whilst providing a filling and nutritious base. It is important to remember that couscous contains gluten so if you are ever using this in place of quinoa it may not be suitable for all diets.

Categorized as Guide