The research team used European data from the World Health Organization's burden of disease project, calculating the proportion of ill health and deaths attributable to food. The definition included food poisoning as well as dietary habits.
The information gathered was then backed up by an extensive review of published studies on the financial and health costs of disease and deaths related to food consumption.
The authors used a composite term to describe the impact of ill health and death, known as DALYs, or disability adjusted life years.
They calculated that 37% of DALYS were attributable to food related diseases, with just a fraction of this (0.2%) attributable to food poisoning. Cardiovascular disease, cancer, and diabetes account for most of this.
Clearly, diet is not responsible for all cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and cancer, which account for 28% of health service costs, amounting to an annual £18 billion in 2002.
But the authors calculate that food accounts for around a third, accounting for 10% of all DALYS and costing an annual £6 billion.
This is double the cost to the health service of road traffic accidents, over three times the cost of smoking, and significantly higher than the cost of obesity, estimated at £479 million.
The authors admit their calculations are crude, but suggest that they are probably reasonable. "The estimates suggest that the burden of food related ill health is large, compared with say, smoking, and suggests that [it] has been neglected by health and food policy makers," they say.
And they call for more specific government health targets on diet, equivalent to those already in place for smoking.