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Is Couscous Gluten Free?

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Couscous is a versatile and popular food, often resembling pasta or rice in appearance, but it is in fact made from grains of durum wheat. As a result, conventional couscous is not gluten-free, since wheat is one of the three primary sources of gluten, along with barley and rye.

Consuming dishes containing traditional couscous is not recommended for individuals who follow a gluten-free diet due to celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity. However, the increasing demand for gluten-free alternatives has led to the development of gluten-free couscous products and similar gluten-free grain products that can be used as substitutes.

What is Couscous?

Couscous is produced from finely ground durum wheat semolina flour and is typically light tan or light brown in color. It can be easily mistaken for short grain brown rice, and some varieties may appear as tiny spheres of pasta. The rather bland taste of couscous allows it to pair well with strongly flavored sauces and ingredients. It is commonly found in Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cuisines, salads, stews, and stir-fries, usually mixed with vegetables, meat, and spices.

Most couscous contains gluten, it is not typically safe for a gluten free diet.

Since most couscous contains gluten, it is essential for those adhering to a gluten-free diet to avoid conventional couscous and only consume couscous products explicitly labeled as gluten-free. In addition, when dining out, it is crucial to trust the restaurant to provide safe gluten-free options.

Alternative Options Safe for a Gluten Free Diet

Several gluten-free couscous alternatives are available for purchase, including:

  1. Asda: A UK-based grocery store chain, Asda offers gluten-free couscous made from maize (corn) semolina. However, it is generally not available in the US.
  2. Clearspring Organic: This UK-based company produces a gluten-free instant couscous made from Italian corn, which can be found on Amazon.
  3. Goldbaum's: Goldbaum's offers a gluten-free Israeli couscous made with potato starch, tapioca starch, and egg whites instead of wheat flour. Produced in a gluten-free facility, it can be found online and in natural food stores in many larger cities.
  4. Streit's: This kosher food company makes gluten-free Israeli couscous using potato and tapioca starch, potato flakes, and egg whites. It is available online and at some kosher food outlets nationwide. Note that Streit's also manufactures conventional couscous, so be sure to choose the gluten-free version when shopping.
  5. Tesco: Another UK-based grocery store chain, Tesco provides gluten-free couscous made from maize (corn). Like Asda's gluten-free couscous, it is generally not available in the US.

Another option is Nayama Attieke's cassava couscous, a gluten-free couscous made from fermented cassava, also known as yuca or arrowroot. A staple in Côte d'Ivoire's cuisine in Africa, attieke has a similar texture to grain-based couscous but features a slightly sour taste due to fermentation. Nayama Attieke can be purchased online at Amazon and other outlets. When using this product, consider recipes specifically designed for attieke, as its unique flavor may not blend well with recipes intended for milder-tasting couscous.

Although conventional couscous is not suitable for those following a gluten-free diet, various alternatives and substitutes are available to ensure that individuals can continue to enjoy dishes traditionally made with couscous.

Gluten-Free Substitutes

Finding gluten-free couscous can be challenging, but with some planning, you can likely 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.

William H. McDaniel, MD

Dr. Robert H. Shmerling is the former clinical chief of the division of rheumatology at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (BIDMC), and is a current member of the corresponding faculty in medicine at Harvard Medical School.

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