The study investigated the association between food and drink consumption and the caries experience among young children in Ajman, United Arab Emirates. A one-stage cluster sample was used to select children who were 5 or 6 yr of age. Clinical examinations for caries were conducted. Parents completed questionnaires seeking information on dietary habits. Principal components analysis was used to derive a summary score for the dietary variables (designated 'snack consumption level') and thus overcome the multicollinearity problems associated with using multiple dietary variables. Dental examination and questionnaire data were obtained for 1,036 children (79.9% participation rate). The overall mean number of decayed, missing or filled teeth (dmft) was 4.5. Snacking three or more times per day was associated with a dmft score that was almost one-third higher than the dmft score for children who snacked only once daily. One-third of children had a low overall snack consumption level (41% moderate and 25% high). There was a consistent dmft gradient across those categories. The severity of Early Childhood Caries (ECC) in young Ajman children is high, with dietary habits being important determinants. Cariogenic snack consumption can be represented using a summary exposure variable that appears to be valid. Young children in Ajman would benefit from health-promotion strategies directed towards appropriate dietary practices. © 2009 Eur J Oral Sci.