Substances that give some foods their bitter flavours can also act to reverse the contraction of airway cells, scientists at the University of Massachusetts Medical School have found.
This reversal, known as bronchodilation, is needed to treat airway obstructive diseases such as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
The new findings could have significant implications for such treatments.
The sense of taste is mediated by taste receptor cells bundled in our taste buds.
These receptors were thought to only exist in the tongue, but recent discoveries have shown that they are actually expressed in various cell types throughout the body.
In particular, bitter taste receptors exist in smooth muscle cells in the airway, acting to relax the cells when exposed to bitter-tasting substances.
A hallmark of an asthma attack is excessive contraction of these smooth muscle cells, which causes narrowing of the airways and breathing difficulties.