Quinoa and couscous are two small, grain-like foods often consumed as alternatives to rice and pasta.

Given their similar appearance and culinary applications, many tend to confuse them or simply wonder how they differ.

Nutritionally speaking, they’re quite different from one another.

This article explains the main differences between quinoa and couscous to help you decide which to choose.

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Though couscous and quinoa may look alike, they’re different foods.

Couscous is a type of small-beaded pasta made from steamed semolina — a flour made from durum wheat. As such, it belongs to the Gramineae, or grass, family and is a staple food in Northern Africa (namely Morocco), Algeria, and Tunisia (1).

On the other hand, quinoa is the seed of the quinoa plant, which belongs to the Chenopodiaceae, or goosefoot, family (2).

However, it’s cataloged as a pseudo-cereal due to its nutritional composition. It’s also typically consumed as a grain instead of a seed (3).

There are three different quinoa varieties — red, black, and white, all of which are cultivated in the Andean region of South America.


Couscous is a type of pasta made from semolina, while quinoa is a seed that’s typically eaten as a grain.

While couscous and quinoa’s nutritional profiles are somewhat similar, their main differences have to do with nutrient quality rather than quantity.

The following chart compares the nutritional profiles of a 3.5-ounce (100-gram) serving of cooked couscous and quinoa (4, 5):

Carbs23.2 grams21.3 grams
Fiber1.4 grams2.8 grams
Protein3.8 grams4.4 grams
Fat0.16 grams1.92 grams
Selenium50% of the Daily Value (DV)5% of the DV
Manganese3.6% of the DV27.4% of the DV
Folate3.7% of the DV10.5% of the DV
Iron2.1% of the DV8.2 % of the DV

Both foods mainly comprise carbs and boast a rather high protein content.

The two are naturally low in fat. Yet, quinoa has about 12 times the amount of fat than couscous, which comes predominantly from heart-healthy fatty acids like omega-3 and omega-6 (6).

Plus, despite similar carb and protein contents, their nutrient quality differs significantly. First, quinoa is known for having a unique protein profile.

Protein comprises amino acids, which are divided into essential and nonessential. Your body can only produce the nonessential ones, meaning that essential amino acids must be obtained from food (7).

Unlike couscous — and most grains and legumes, two common plant-based protein sources — quinoa contains all the essential amino acids. This makes it a high quality protein source (8, 9, 10, 11).

As for their carb contents, quinoa packs twice as much fiber as couscous, meaning that it’ll leave you feeling fuller for longer.

Quinoa also has a low glycemic index (GI) of 53, compared with couscous’ medium GI of 65. A high GI means that a food is likely to spike your blood sugar levels, while a low GI means that a food will produce a slower and steadier blood sugar increase (12, 13, 14).


Quinoa and couscous have similar nutrient compositions but different nutrient qualities. Unlike couscous, quinoa contains all the essential amino acids and is less likely to spike your blood sugar.

Couscous and quinoa each have their share of health benefits.

For instance, couscous provides high amounts of selenium. This trace metal supports your immune system and thyroid function and may lower the risk of heart disease and certain cancers (15, 16).

It also acts as a powerful antioxidant that fights the harmful effects of free radicals, which are linked to premature aging and cancer (15).

Quinoa also packs high amounts of antioxidants — including phenolic acids, flavonoids, and terpenoids — which confer it anti-diabetic, anti-cancer, and anti-inflammatory properties (17).

Additionally, consuming low GI foods such as quinoa — or following a low GI diet — has been associated with a decreased risk of heart disease and diabetes (12, 18, 19).

Nevertheless, both foods also have some drawbacks.

For example, being made out of wheat, couscous is high in gluten — a protein predominantly found in wheat, barley, and rye. Therefore, it may not be suitable for people with celiac disease or a gluten sensitivity (20).

Contrarily, quinoa is naturally gluten-free. That said, it contains prolamins, a group of proteins present in gluten. According to a test-tube study, these proteins may trigger symptoms in some people (21, 22, 23).

Still, research in humans suggests that daily intakes of up to 1.8 ounces (50 grams) of quinoa may be well tolerated by people with celiac disease, making it a safe alternative for those following a gluten-free diet (24).


Couscous is rich in selenium, a mineral needed for various metabolic processes, but also contains gluten. Quinoa is gluten-free and rich in antioxidants, but it also contains prolamins, which may trigger symptoms in sensitive people with celiac disease.

Couscous and quinoa differ in flavor and texture.

Couscous has a pasta-like texture and neutral flavor, meaning that it tastes much like the ingredients with which it’s cooked. In contrast, quinoa has a slightly nutty flavor and crunchier texture.

In regards to their preparation, both products completely absorb water or stock like rice does, without the need to drain them. You may prepare both using chicken or vegetable broth to improve their taste.

Regarding their culinary uses, couscous and quinoa may be used interchangeably in many recipes, as they’re both enjoyed hot or cold and served as side dishes or mixed into salads.

What’s more, quinoa can be made into flour and used in baked goods due to the functional properties of its starch, which include gelation, viscosity, and foaming (25).

Cooking with quinoa flour may improve the nutritional quality of baked products, given that it adds extra protein, fiber, and antioxidants but no gluten (26).

You can also rely on quinoa to make soup, porridge, and sweet or savory snacks.


Couscous has a pasta-like texture and neutral flavor, while quinoa has a crunchier texture and nutty flavor. They can be used interchangeably in some dishes, but quinoa can also be made into flour for use in baked goods.

Both couscous and quinoa are tasty, versatile, and easy to cook.

They also offer multiple health benefits, including immune system support, improved heart health and blood glucose control, and protection against certain types of cancer.

However, if you’re trying to enhance a meal’s nutritional profile, increase your protein intake, or follow a gluten-free lifestyle, quinoa would be your best pick.

On the other hand, if you’re simply looking to switch up your regular serving of pasta or rice, couscous could provide some variety to your everyday meals. Just remember that couscous doesn’t fit a gluten-free diet.


You have to consider your dietary needs when choosing one over the other. Quinoa may improve your meal’s nutritional profile and fits a gluten-free lifestyle. Meanwhile, couscous can add variety to your regular meals.

Couscous and quinoa are two versatile grain-like foods with different nutritional qualities.

Unlike couscous, quinoa is high in plant-based protein, fiber, and antioxidants, and it has a low GI.

Still, both offer multiple potential health benefits and make a great addition to salads — although quinoa’s culinary uses expand into soups, porridges, and baked goods.

Remember to consider your dietary needs when choosing one over the other, as quinoa suits a gluten-free diet, while couscous doesn’t.