It is widely appreciated that health food beverages are not appropriate for infants. Because of continued growth, children beyond infancy remain susceptible to nutritional disorders. We report on 2 cases of severe nutritional deficiency caused by consumption of health food beverages. In both cases, the parents were well-educated, appeared conscientious, and their children received regular medical care. Diagnoses were delayed by a low index of suspicion. In addition, nutritional deficiencies are uncommon in the United States and as a result, US physicians may be unfamiliar with their clinical features.
Case 1, a 22-month-old male child, was admitted with severe kwashiorkor. He was breastfed until 13 months of age. Because of a history of chronic eczema and perceived milk intolerance, he was started on a rice beverage after weaning. On average, he consumed 1.5 L of this drink daily. Intake of solid foods was very poor. As this rice beverage, which was fallaciously referred to as rice milk, is extremely low in protein content, the resulting daily protein intake of 0.3 g/kg/day was only 25% of the recommended dietary allowance. In contrast, caloric intake was 72% of the recommended energy intake, so the dietary protein to energy ratio was very low.
A photograph of the patient after admission illustrates the typical features of kwashiorkor: generalized edema, hyperpigmented and hypopigmented skin lesions, abdominal distention, irritability, and thin, sparse hair. Because of fluid retention, the weight was on the 10th percentile and he had a rotund sugar baby appearance. Laboratory evaluation was remarkable for a serum albumin of 1.0 g/dL (10 g/L), urea nitrogen <0.5 mg/dL (<0.2 mmol/L), and a normocytic anemia with marked anisocytosis. Evaluation for other causes of hypoalbuminemia was negative.
Therapy for kwashiorkor was instituted, including gradual refeeding, initially via a nasogastric tube because of severe anorexia. Supplements of potassium, phosphorus, multivitamins, zinc, and folic acid were provided. The patient responded dramatically to refeeding with a rising serum albumin and total resolution of the edema within 3 weeks. At follow-up 1 year later he continued to do well on a regular diet supplemented with a milk-based pediatric nutritional supplement.
The mortality of kwashiorkor remains high, because of complications such as infection (kwashiorkor impairs cellular immune defenses) and electrolyte imbalances with ongoing diarrhea. Children in industrialized countries have developed kwashiorkor resulting from the use of a nondairy creamer as a milk alternative, but we were unable to find previous reports of kwashiorkor caused by a health food milk alternative. We suspect that cases have been overlooked.
Case 2, a 17-month-old black male, was diagnosed with rickets. He was full-term at birth and was breastfed until 10 months of age, when he was weaned to a soy health food beverage, which was not fortified with vitamin D or calcium. Intake of solid foods was good, but included no animal products. Total daily caloric intake was 114% of the recommended dietary allowance. Dietary vitamin D intake was essentially absent because of the lack of vitamin D-fortified milk. The patient lived in a sunny, warm climate, but because of parental career demands, he had limited sun exposure. His dark complexion further reduced ultraviolet light-induced endogenous skin synthesis of vitamin D.
The patient grew and developed normally until after his 9-month check-up, when he had an almost complete growth arrest of both height and weight. The parents reported regression in gross motor milestones. On admission the patient was unable to crawl or roll over. He could maintain a sitting position precariously when so placed. Conversely, his language, fine motor-adaptive, and personal-social skills were well-preserved. Generalized hypotonia, weakness, and decreased muscle bulk were present. Clinical features of rickets present on examination included: frontal bossing, an obvious rachitic rosary (photographed), genu varus, flaring of the wrists, and lumbar kyphoscoliosis. The serum alkaline phosphatase was markedly elevated (1879 U/L), phosphorus was low (1.7 mg/dL), and calcium was low normal (8.9 mg/dL). The 25-hydroxy-vitamin D level was low (7.7 pg/mL) and the parathyroid hormone level was markedly elevated (114 pg/mL). The published radiographs are diagnostic of advanced rickets, showing diffuse osteopenia, frayed metaphyses, widened epiphyseal plates, and a pathologic fracture of the ulna. The patient was treated with ergocalciferol and calcium supplements. The published growth chart demonstrates the dramatic response to therapy. Gross motor milestones were fully regained within 6 months. The prominent neuromuscular manifestations shown by this patient serve as a reminder that rickets should be considered in the differential diagnosis of motor delay.
Nutritional rickets remained a major pediatric health scourge in the United States until the late 1920s, when vitamin D fortification of commercially prepared milk was introduced. Milk remains the main source of exogenous vitamin D for toddlers. It is prudent to ensure that any beverage given to a toddler in place of milk is fortified with vitamin D. These nutritional diseases, which are associated with considerable morbidity and possible mortality, are entirely preventable. A dietary history and, when necessary, dietary counseling remains an essential component of health maintenance visits. The health food beverages used by these families stated on the container that they were not intended for use as infant formulas. We contend that beverages not containing appropriate quantities of protein, vitamins, and minerals for toddlers, which could be reasonably perceived as milk alternatives by the public, should carry a warning label as to their inappropriateness for this age group.