The much-studied Murchison meteorite is generally used as the standard reference for organic compounds in extraterrestrial material. Amino acids and other organic compounds important in contemporary biochemistry are thought to have been delivered to the early Earth by asteroids and comets, where they may have played a role in the origin of life. Polyhydroxylated compounds (polyols) such as sugars, sugar alcohols and sugar acids are vital to all known lifeforms-they are components of nucleic acids (RNA, DNA), cell membranes and also act as energy sources. But there has hitherto been no conclusive evidence for the existence of polyols in meteorites, leaving a gap in our understanding of the origins of biologically important organic compounds on Earth. Here we report that a variety of polyols are present in, and indigenous to, the Murchison and Murray meteorites in amounts comparable to amino acids. Analyses of water extracts indicate that extraterrestrial processes including photolysis and formaldehyde chemistry could account for the observed compounds. We conclude from this that polyols were present on the early Earth and therefore at least available for incorporation into the first forms of life.