As the credit crunch worsens, consumers may abandon their new-found food ethics in favour of reducing their grocery bills - spelling trouble for premium categories such as organic, warned an Ernst & Young report last week.

"Shoppers may decide they can live without organic," says Joel Segal, head of consumer products at the accountancy firm.

But with Mintel putting the organic market at £1.5bn - double its value at the turn of the century - and double-digit growth now the norm, just how real is the threat?

There is evidence to suggest consumers are trying to reduce their shopping bills. According to Aldi, some are already leaving the safety of the supermarket and sneaking along to their local discounter. "The number of ABC1 customers we're getting in is up 17%," it reports.

However, organic is not the soft touch it may have been when the last recession hit. "After enjoying its first retail boom in the late 80s, the organic market fell apart in the early 1990s," says Matt Reed, a research fellow at the Countryside and Community Research Institute. "Now organic is embedded in people's beliefs, so they may be more reluctant to surrender it."

Rachel's Organic says the economic downturn is unlikely to dent sales. "If it's a quality product, people will keep buying it," says founder Rachel Rowland.

Rachel's, like Green & Black's and the other big organic brands, have long focused their marketing initiatives on the taste of their products rather than their organic status. This, says Amarjit Sahota, director of marketing consultants Organic Monitor, has added stability to the market.

"People won't stop buying those brands," he adds, "because they feel the price tag is justified."

But what about non-branded produce? According to research by the Kent Business School, many customers feel organic fresh produce is "tasteless", and buy it out of guilt or a sense of duty.

Professor Andrew Fearne, who led the survey, says repeat purchases of organic fresh produce are "woefully below" those of conventional produce. " Simply being organic is no longer enough," he says. "Just because the market is in double-digit growth doesn't mean everything is rosy. That's a short-sighted view."

Consumers are confused about the meaning of organic, he adds. Unlike Fairtrade, it lacks one simple message, not that this has had an impact on sales. In the 52 weeks to January 2008 organic fruit sales grew 18% compared with 2% for standard fruit.

"Consumers have always been confused," says Simon Wright, founder of O&F Consulting. "They buy organic on an emotional level, rather than an intellectual one. That emotional bond is more likely to withstand a reduction in purchasing power."

Crucially, the price differential has narrowed in the past few years.

"The difference in price can be as little as 15%," says Sahota. "On something like a pint of milk, those pennies aren't going to cause people to abandon organic."

The Soil Association, which certifies more than 80% of organic products, says it has not noticed any dip in demand.

It's all quiet on the retail front, too. Sainsbury's has gone so far as to claim that its organic sales, at £7m a week, are fuelling its current growth spurt.

Despite the credit crunch, demand still outstrips supply and Mintel predicts the market will grow 44% by 2012. There will be a slowdown, "but that's a sign of a maturing market", it says. Therefore, the problem may be bare shelves rather than full ones.