There are many reasons why Americans are fat, lazy, and facing a type 2 diabetes epidemic that outweighs that of most other nations. But now scientists have identified one major culprit: high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS). In the U.S., this cheap, lab-created ingredient sweetens everything from sodas to ketchup to the ill-fated Twinkie, and nutrition experts have long argued that it is more health harming than beet and cane sugars. However, not every nation uses the sweetener in its products – and it appears they are healthier for it. According to new research published in the journal Global Public Health, out of 42 countries studied, those with the largest HFCS consumptions have 20 percent higher rates of type 2 diabetes than the nations that have the least amounts of this sweeter in their food supply. No shocker, the U.S. tops the HFCS list and also ranks high in diabetes prevalence.

According to Michael Goran, principal study author and a diabetes researcher at University of Southern California, the trouble with HFCS is that it usually contains more fructose than glucose. "Having more fructose is problematic, because it has more potential to cause metabolic damage," he says. "Fructose may be absorbed more readily, and it's metabolized almost exclusively in the liver."

HFCS manufacturers would have you think otherwise, though, claiming the body can't tell the difference between sugar types. Goran fires back: "To say that HFCS is nutritionally and metabolically equivalent to other sugars is simply not true," he says. "They're trying to pull the wool over consumers' eyes. You can't argue with the metabolic machinery of the body."

Goran says HFCS became popular with food manufacturers in the 1970s and 1980s because it's cheaper to chemically manufacture the substance from corn than to purify sucrose from cane sugar. Plus, the higher fructose content makes HFCS sweeter, so companies can use less in a product; HFCS also extends products' shelf lives. That may have been great news for food and beverage makers, but Americans are now paying the price with poorer health, Goran says.

For optimum well-being, he suggests cutting back on all types of sugar, but absolutely avoiding items that include HFCS (not to be confused with regular corn syrup – that's different), which by law must be mentioned in ingredient lists. "If a label says high-fructose corn syrup, put the product back," Goran says. "Chances are there's a similar item without HCFS that will have less overall sugar anyway." Instead, he says to look for ingredients such as evaporated cane juice, beet juice, and sucrose.