Exclusive: West Brom star explains how the plant aided his recovery from a broken leg and helped launch a new and very successful businessBy Sam Cunningham
Friday, 20th December 2019, 11:50 am
Updated Friday, 20th December 2019, 12:16 pmHal Robson-Kanu is flying high with West Brom but his career might never have even started were it not for turmeric (Photo: Tom Pilston)Hal Robson-Kanu was 15 when his left leg snapped in half.The striker had only just joined Reading’s academy, then run by Brendan Rodgers, from Arsenal, where he was let go for being too small. Remarkable, really, considering the tall, muscular 30-year-old who greets i to discuss, of all things, his obsession with turmeric, which ultimately began that moment his knee was obliterated. Reading rated Robson-Kanu highly, despite the fact he was due a growth spurt Arsenal were not patient enough to wait for, and he immediately joined the reserves, playing with grown men in their 20s. “One of the defenders came through my knee with his studs and my leg effectively snapped in half sideways,” he recalls.
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i's fantasy football tips newsletter: get aheadRobson-Kanu had no idea that single moment would set him on the path to becoming an inadvertent human guinea pig, discovering a concoction of natural ingredients which would save his career and spark a business venture which would lead to providing a recovery-supporting turmeric shot to eight Premier League clubs, the England side who reached the Rugby World Cup final and his own team, West Bromwich Albion, who are top of the Championship. He certainly would have had no inkling that, 15 years later, he would sit down for an interview and be able to discuss turmeric, for a whole hour.
Robson-Kanu’s fascination with it blossomed from the years he spent injured and the trauma he went through trying to deal with constant pain and adverse reactions to anti-inflammatory medicine.
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The first time he had surgery on his knee, then a year of rehabilitation. Then within a month of returning the knee went again. Robson-Kanu went back to the same surgeon, who privately told his father that the player might want to look at alternative careers.Robson-Kanu during his early days at Reading (Photo: Getty Images)
To Robson-Kanu’s face, they told him the brutal news that he would never play without pain again, that there would always be a degree of restriction around his knee, and that, additionally, his hamstrings would never function the same because they had twice been used to repair the knee.
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The reality was worse than expected. After another 12 months rehabilitation following the second surgery, every time Robson-Kanu even jogged the knee would swell up like a balloon. The Reading physiotherapists introduced him to anti-inflammatory drugs - ibuprofen, diclofenac, some even stronger - but the side effects were horrendous.
Robson-Kanu was 17 and pissing blood, suffering from insomnia after matches, feeling constant nausea. “It was a traumatic time,” he recalls. “I was caught between a rock and a hard place, eventually I had to stop taking these painkillers because I simply couldn't take it anymore.”
'It was a lightbulb moment for me seeing the impact nutrition can have on your life'
He stopped the medication but was desperate for an alternative when his knee was so swollen and he was in so much pain he could not walk up a flight of stairs after a reserve match, and started crying.Seeing your child in such a state would be hard to take for any parent at any age, let alone a teenager who was yet to properly make it as a footballer. So Robson-Kanu’s father, Rechi, got to work in what would become a human experiment lasting more than a decade into the natural anti-inflammatory effect of a flowering plant whose root has been used in Asia for thousands of years. This was back before a galaxy of information was available via a few words typed into a Google search bar, before documentaries such as the huge Netflix hit The Game Changers hailed a plant-based diet. So Hal and Rechi hit the library together, where they found books and old documents about spices, one in particular that listed every spice in the world, their properties and their ancient uses in Eastern medicine.Hal Robson-Kanu with a big box of turmeric (Photo: Tom Pilston)A curious mind runs in the family. Rechi was born in Nigeria, and moved to England for university. His father - who died in the Biafran War, a civil war in Nigeria which ran between 1967 and 1970 - was a herbalist. “My father remembers his father going into the jungle and coming back with a number of leaves,” Robson-Kanu says. “They would do things like drop a liquid into people’s eyes and pull the cataracts out, which to us would seem obscene today.”
Rechi’s job at the time meant he had access to research materials and discovered other natural ingredients with anti-inflammatory or antioxidant properties: ginger, pineapple, watermelon, pomegranate. “Black pepper enhances the absorption of the active compound in turmeric, which is curcumin. We had the spices, we had the raw roots, and we basically began mixing it together to try and get it into my system. It was like a mush - a paste - to begin with.
“Turmeric as a natural root, as a natural ingredient, is not palatable at all. It’s bitter. And also it stains. We looked at ways of extracting the juice from the fibrous ingredients.”
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'My release is doing something which I’m passionate about... this business is an integral part of my life'
Robson-Kanu was living by himself and every day his dad would be there, after training or games, to work on the next iteration of their anti-inflammatory potion. Initially, he would spoon the awful mixture into his mouth, but within 10 minutes his teeth would be stained yellow.
Trial after error after trial after error, 10 weeks later, Robson-Kanu got out of bed, went for a wee and was in the shower when he realised he had noticed no discomfort whatsoever in his knee or leg. The feeling was sensational. To rule out other factors, he stopped taking the turmeric mixture for a week, and the pain and swelling returned. “It was a lightbulb moment for me seeing the impact nutrition can have on your life,” he says.
Over the years, as they refined and perfected it, blenders were ruined, utensils destroyed, entire worktops stained and kitchens had to be replaced. Robson-Kanu became used to turning up to training with stained fingers. Their secret lies in the way they extract the liquid from the turmeric root, and Robson-Kanu is, naturally, not prepared to give that away.Hal Robson-Kanu turns Thomas Meunier and Marouane Fellaini before scoring against Belgium at Euro 2016 (Photo: Getty Images)“I wouldn’t have had the career I had without it,” Robson-Kanu says, and can recall five team-mates back when he was a teenager who had similar injuries and did not go on to have a career as a professional footballer. Robson-Kanu has scored goals in the Premier League and reached the Euro 2016 semi-finals with Wales, including scoring that famous Cruyff-turn goal in the quarter-finals which was nominated for Fifa's goal of the year. Robson-Kanu only realised he had a potential business on his hands when he visited Harrods four years ago and saw a shelf full of turmeric shots. He was delighted that they would no longer have to make their own and cleared the shop out, only to discover the liquid was watery, and didn’t taste great, and a huge percentage of it was juice. Realising there was a market out there, he explored other products and found the same thing.So Hal and Rechi started up the Turmeric Co and, judging by the demand, their turmeric shot is no fad, although he is keen to stress that it is not a medicine, that it is a natural support for recovery and rehabilitation.
Slaven Bilic, the manager of West Brom, where Robson-Kanu has scored six goals in his last 11 games, was first introduced to the turmeric shot when he saw his forward taking one at the training ground.
“He was feeling a bit under the weather and I gave him a shot before we went out for training," Robson-Kanu says. "We came in and he said, ‘What the fuck was that?’ I told him it’s a turmeric shot, this business I’ve set up. He said, ‘I fucking feel good, can you get me some for me and my kids, please?’"
West Brom manager Slaven Bilic is a turmeric convert (Photo: Getty Images)He does not want to go into specifics about finances, but they can be found in Planet Organic and Whole Foods, among many other shops, and he says they have been approached by companies who are interested in buying them out. “I won’t name the companies, but I had a meeting last week with a company who are one of the top suppliers of exotic fruits in Europe, with a turnover of half a billion.”Plenty of footballers, such as Jesse Lingard and Dele Alli, have been criticised by former pros in recent times for pursuing interests outside of football. “Everyone's entitled to an opinion,” Robson-Kanu says. “But at the same time, I think that whole discussion then begins to move towards mental health of players. Professional footballers are human beings, when you’re in such a demanding sport - or profession - you have to be able to switch off from that. “If that switching off is playing Fifa for eight hours, that’s fine. If that’s going on the golf course for 10 hours and stopping at the Halfway House for a coffee, that’s okay. But for me, my release is doing something which I’m passionate about, which is developing a business which has been an integral part of my life.
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“People need to understand it’s important for players to be involved in something beyond football. You ask Slaven Bilic, who trains the hardest every day? Who runs the hardest in training? He’ll tell you.”
Were it not for turmeric, Robson-Kanu may never have been able to run again.ChampionshipReading FCWest Bromwich Albion FC